Working with Your Animal Instincts: Building Healthy Habits

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Do you spend your time at work simply going through the motions? Do you feel tired, painful, addicted to caffeine, and like you’ve seen every case before? Are you constantly putting out other people’s fires or tending to everyone else’s needs? Do you spend the time you could be sleeping worrying about a patient or what someone said on social media?

If you answered Yes to any of these questions, you are at risk for poor work satisfaction, compassion fatigue, burnout, and negative patient outcomes, and it’s time to flip that script and put yourself at the top of the triage list.

Veterinary medicine is physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding. We are trained to handle client and patient needs, but we rarely care for ourselves. Following are some practical tips for navigating life as a busy professional while taking care of your own needs as well as those of your patients.

The Human Animal

Let’s begin by thinking of veterinary professionals as animals—Human Animals. The Human Animal has basic needs that must be met to enable her or him to perform at the highest levels. Abraham Maslow discussed a hierarchical pyramid of needs for all humans1 and explained that individual personal growth cannot be attained without first obtaining food, water, air, security, love, respect, and confidence.

The Human Animal’s needs tend to get lost in the veterinary practice, with its hustle and bustle of cases, call backs, and barking dogs. The short-term effects of neglecting the Human Animal’s needs can include hunger, thirst, tiredness, and frustration, while the long-term effects may include physical injuries, mental fatigue, team infighting, patient injuries, and medical errors. Following are some ways to care for the Human Animal, keep the work environment safe, and foster lasting team relationships. 


Food is love. Here are some thoughts about feeding the Human Animal.

  • Eat when you are hungry, not when you “should” or when you “have a sec.” Hydration is more important than food in many cases—your brain, joints, and gut will thank you when you are well hydrated. Water is best; the occasional tea, coffee, or soda can help but does not add to your total daily water intake. 
  • Eat real food. The human body is designed to process food, not to eat processed foods. You may not have time to prepare a 10-course meal, but you can prepare and plan meals days in advance. 
  • Take time to chew and enjoy your food. Good food should not be gulped down in 30 seconds. 
  • Consider team-based meal preparation. One day a week, ask a team member to be responsible for feeding the whole team, and rotate the responsibility among the other team members. You will try foods you would not naturally gravitate toward and learn more about your team members in the process. 

For the Human Animal, stress isn’t really stress—it’s a perceived threat. In the modern world, we may not need to run from a bear in the woods, but we are bombarded with threats throughout the day. Technology is a great example of a threat (ie, stress) because every time you receive or send a text or message, dopamine and epinephrine influence your physiology.2,3 The need to respond to each notification as soon as it’s received is a stressor, plain and simple. At work, that stressor can be amplified by the dozens of cases and the other needs and demands of the day. The outcome is a stressed-out Human Animal.

We have all seen a fractious cat, a flighty horse, or a nervous, cornered dog. We recognize threats or signs of fear and can use low-stress handling techniques, food, or other motivators for these nervous or anxious patients. The Human Animal is similar, if you know what to look for.

  • The team member you see as disengaged, snippy, or even mean is probably just fearful and anxious. Check in with her or him to see how you can help. 
  • Monitoring anesthesia for multihour dentistry is psychologically and physically taxing. Give people mental breaks from intense procedures and they are bound to return re-engaged. 
  • Celebrate the cases that go smoothly, and encourage open discussion about those that do not. Difficult discussions are part of the veterinary profession.

Do you think sleep impacts the Human Animal at work? You bet it does. You shouldn’t really sleep at work (with the caveats of shift work and emergency cases), but you do need sleep to recover and recharge.

  • Sleep is non-negotiable. The Human Animal needs 6 to 8 hours to recover.4 Reduce or eliminate blue light, which suppresses natural melatonin secretion and prevents moving into deeper phases of restorative rest. 
  • Create a sleep den. Keep the den dark, cool (ie, 65°F-69°F), clean, and free of distractions (eg, remove electronics). 
  • Cat naps are effective. Naps should not last more than 40 minutes—more than that is considered sleep.5
  • Put your phone in Do Not Disturb mode or turn off the Wi-Fi to limit sleep disturbance. The 2 am Instagram notification can wait.

The Human Animal is designed to go through a full range of motion without pain. Here are ways to move—and keep moving—at work.

  • Sitting is the new smoking. Excessive sitting is related to chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity.6 Consider standing workstations rather than constantly sitting at a desk. Get up and move for at least 5 minutes for every 60 to 90 minutes you are sedentary. 
  • Test your mobility by getting up and down from the floor without using your hands. 
  • Try squatting down to see patients rather than having team members struggle to keep them on the table. 
  • Consider walking meetings rather than sitting around a table. 


Above all else, have fun. Get back to playing and laughing the way you did when your Human Animal was young. Self-care isn’t selfish; if you aren’t taking care of yourself, you are doing a disservice to your team members, clients, and patients. Veterinary medicine is a team sport, and we need to be constantly vigilant and look out for one another. Caring for yourself is necessary, as is caring for the rest of the pack.

Veterinary professionals often try to do everything at once. Choose one new habit, work until it sticks—usually a few weeks—and then add a new habit into the mix. Do not try to be the “biggest loser.” Sustainable transformation is the goal.

1Choose one item from each recommended list (ie, food, stress, sleep, movement) to experiment with each week over the next month.

2At the end of each week, assess the impact of each change on your Human Animal.

References and author information Show
  1. Maslow AH. A theory of human motivation. Psychol Rev. 1943;50(4):370-396.
  2. Loh KK, Kanai R. How has the internet reshaped human cognition? [published July 13, 2015]. Neuroscientist. 2016;22(5):506-520. doi:10.1177/1073858415595005
  3. Brand M, Young KS, Laier C. Prefrontal control and Internet addiction: a theoretical model and review of neuropsychological and neuroimaging findings. Front Hum Neurosci. 2014;8:375. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00375
  4. Watson NF, Badr MS, Belenky G, et al. Recommended hours of sleep for a healthy adult: a joint consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society. J Clin Sleep Med. 2015;11(6):591-592.
  5. Milner CE, Kote KA. Benefits of napping in healthy adults: impact of nap length, time of day, age, and experience with napping. J Sleep Res. 2009;18(3):272-281.
  6. Lee IM, Shiroma EJ, Lobelo F, et al. Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy. Lancet. 2012;380(9838):219-229.

Jennifer K. Quammen

DVM, MPH High Performance Living, Walton, Kentucky

Jennifer K. Quammen, DVM, MPH, is cofounder of High Performance Living, a business focused on helping veterinarians thrive in life, love, and work. Jen works in private practices in Kentucky and Indiana, with a special emphasis in surgery. She is also involved in organized medicine and is an AVMA Council member, the Kentucky VMA vice president and public relations chairperson, and the Power of Ten program cofacilitator. An alumna of the Veterinary Leadership Institute’s Veterinary Leadership Experience (VLE), Jen returned in 2017 for her sixth year as a VLE facilitator. 

FUN FACT: Jen loves chocolate—the darker the better—and peanut butter, but she detests them together. The world’s supply of Reese’s is safe around her! She also lifts kettlebells in traditional Russian style and competes once a year or so in StrongSport or long cycle.

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Veterinary Team Brief delivers practical skills for team-based medicine—with clinical strategies for team training, peer-reviewed credibility, concise content, essential training modules, and easy-to-implement protocols. From the publisher of Clinician's Brief.