Practical Philosophy for Veterinary Medicine

A philosophical perspective can help with almost any professional work, including veterinary medicine. Last week, I spoke with professional veterinarians at the Early Career Professional and Personal Development Program for the Portland Veterinary Medical Association about how philosophical skills and thinking can help make their work more efficient, productive, purposeful, and fulfilling. Here are some of the tips and perspectives I gave them.

Philosophical Perspectives for Veterinary Care

There are lots of ways that a philosophical approach may serve the professional and personal development of those in the veterinary field. Here are just a few of the areas where a philosophical perspective may be useful:

Relationships with Colleagues

As with most professions, veterinary work may require that you work with or alongside other practitioners and staff, and you may not always agree with the approaches, values, or worldviews of your colleagues, leading to frustration and conflict.

Practical Philosopher’s Tip:

One of the major philosophical skills is being able to inhabit, understand, and evaluate a variety of worldviews—without necessarily condoning or agreeing with those perspectives. This skill allows you to understand and work more effectively with colleagues and contribute to a more productive, collaborative, and congenial workplace. Here are some tips for how:

  • Approach other perspectives with a fair and charitable attitude, trying to see them in their strongest possible light, rather than purposefully representing them as weak and flawed;

  • Temper your own emotional reactivity, egocentrism, and self-righteousness in the face of opposing points of view. Listen attentively and with an open mind;

  • Analyze, evaluate, and judge other perspectives with precision, accuracy, and care;

  • Evaluate, revise, and refine your own assumptions and judgments so that you can grow both personally and professionally.

Ethical Decision-Making

Veterinarians face certain kinds of ethical decisions on a regular basis that doctors in other fields deal with far less frequently, if at all. Examples include weighing conflicting needs and desires of both the client and the patient in medical decisions; and considering the moral impact of euthanasia in a variety of unique cases.

Practical Philosopher’s Tip:

The philosophical subfield of ethics has an enormous body of literature devoted entirely to how to figure out the right thing to do. Of course, there are lots of different perspectives and guidelines out there. Here are some tips for how to navigate sticky ethical situations:

  • Understand and reflect on your professional code of ethics, which may serve as a guidepost for when things are unclear. If you do not have a professional ethics code, or you feel it is too vague or incomplete, and/or it conflicts with your personal code of ethics, devote some time to sorting this out, perhaps with the help of a professional philosopher/ethicist;

  • Moral decision-making is complex and nuanced; there is likely not a one-size-fits-all answer for every situation;

  • You will not get it right every time, but this does not mean that you are a moral failure. Keep in mind Aristotle’s idea that moral intelligence and character is built over time, with habitual practice.

Empathy Fatigue

Veterinary work involves repeated exposure to and relationships with creatures in critical need. The impact of this exposure to trauma can lead to a kind of fatigue in compassion or empathy.

Practical Philosopher’s Tip:

Philosopher Rita Manning believes that a caring relationship with others should guide our actions, but acknowledges the reality of “caring burnout.” She argues that caring for oneself is part of our moral obligation. Here are some ways to avoid and/or respond to “caring burnout”:

  • Put on your own oxygen mask first. Care for others is not possible if you deplete your means or capacity to do so; thus, prioritize your physical and psychological needs if you wish to be an agent of care. This may mean making or asking for changes in your life or workplace.

  • Remaining open and present in others’ suffering does not require you to suffer as well. The ancient philosopher Epictetus said, when you see someone suffering, “sympathize with him so far as words go, and, if occasion offers, even to groan with him; but be careful not to groan also in the center of your being.”

  • Pay close attention to your body when dealing with emotional situations. What is happening to your pulse your breath, your jaw, your stomach? Your peripheral awareness of these aspects can help you stay grounded, centered, and prevent you from getting swept away with emotion.


The average American workplace is not currently organized to serve and support working parents, particularly in highly demanding fields, such as medicine. In a field dominated by women, such as veterinary medicine, this concern may be elevated, as women statistically continue to do the majority of child care, especially in the early stages of a child’s life.

In addition, the transition to parenthood can bring massive shifts in one’s sense of identity, priorities, values, and psychological vulnerability, leading to confusion and struggle, both at work and at home.

Practical Philosopher’s Tip:

The work of parenting is unpaid and largely undervalued in our culture. This does not mean that it is not strenuous, challenging, and extraordinarily important, both for our personal lives and for society at large. Here are some tips for navigating working parenthood:

  • What feels like “you” problem is often part of a larger structural problem. This acknowledgment may not immediately help solve the problem, but it can help guide where improvements should be made and remove some of the burden of feeling like it is personal failing;

  • Emphasize self-compassion, humor, and flexibility. Parenthood by its very nature involves uncertainty, loss of control, and mistakes;

  • Give yourself time to develop and grow into this new identity, along with the changes it brings. The birth of a child is also the birth of a parent.

Work with Me

These are just a few of the many ways that a philosophical perspective may serve you. If you would like more philosophical guidance or training in any of these areas, either in an individual or group setting, I invite you to connect with me.

I offer one-on-one Philosophical Coaching (with a specialization in serving mothers), as well as Ethics Workshops, and other Practical Philosophy Workshops in a variety of areas—including Buddhist mindfulness, existentialism, critical thinking, motherhood and more—for both individuals and organizations.

Contact me and learn more at