Perceptions of support and policies regarding pregnancy, parenting, and family planning during veterinary training at United States veterinary medical training institutions

Marieke H. Rosenbaum Department of Infectious Disease and Global Health, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University, North Grafton, MA 01536.

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Annie S. Wayne Department of Clinical Sciences, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University, North Grafton, MA 01536.

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Brianna L. Molter Department of Clinical Sciences, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University, North Grafton, MA 01536.

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Megan K. Mueller Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University, Medford, MA 02155.

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Abstract

OBJECTIVE To gather information about issues associated with pregnancy, lactation, and parenting for US veterinary students and house officers (trainees) and their perception of pregnancy and parenting support services available at US veterinary training institutions.

DESIGN Cross-sectional mixed-method survey.

SAMPLE 2,088 veterinary students and 312 house officers from 27 US veterinary training institutions.

PROCEDURES An email with a link to an online survey was sent to the associate dean for academic affairs at each of the 30 AVMA-accredited US veterinary training institutions with a request that it be forwarded to all veterinary students and house officers (interns and residents).

RESULTS Among the 2,400 respondents, 185 (7.7%) reported that they were a parent, were pregnant, or had a significant other who was pregnant. Several significant differences in attitudes and perceptions of pregnancy and parenting support services provided by veterinary training institutions were identified between males and females, veterinary students and house officers, and respondents who were and were not parents.

CONCLUSIONS AND CLINICAL RELEVANCE Results provided crucial information about an important facet of well-being for veterinary trainees and suggested that veterinary students and house officers face substantial challenges in becoming parents during their training programs and that perceptions of those challenges differ between males and females.

Abstract

OBJECTIVE To gather information about issues associated with pregnancy, lactation, and parenting for US veterinary students and house officers (trainees) and their perception of pregnancy and parenting support services available at US veterinary training institutions.

DESIGN Cross-sectional mixed-method survey.

SAMPLE 2,088 veterinary students and 312 house officers from 27 US veterinary training institutions.

PROCEDURES An email with a link to an online survey was sent to the associate dean for academic affairs at each of the 30 AVMA-accredited US veterinary training institutions with a request that it be forwarded to all veterinary students and house officers (interns and residents).

RESULTS Among the 2,400 respondents, 185 (7.7%) reported that they were a parent, were pregnant, or had a significant other who was pregnant. Several significant differences in attitudes and perceptions of pregnancy and parenting support services provided by veterinary training institutions were identified between males and females, veterinary students and house officers, and respondents who were and were not parents.

CONCLUSIONS AND CLINICAL RELEVANCE Results provided crucial information about an important facet of well-being for veterinary trainees and suggested that veterinary students and house officers face substantial challenges in becoming parents during their training programs and that perceptions of those challenges differ between males and females.

Most veterinary students and house officers (veterinary trainees) are between 23 and 31 years old,1 which coincides with the peak reproductive age for men and women.2 Currently, published data regarding the number of veterinary trainees who are also parents, pregnant, or lactating or who plan to become parents are lacking, despite recognition of the challenges associated with pregnancy and parenting during veterinary training.3 There is also little known about parenting support services available to veterinary trainees or trainees’ perceptions of that support. Results of a survey4 conducted by our research group indicate that administrative policies and parenting support services at US veterinary institutions are scant, and few institutions have formal written parental leave or lactation polices or have developed support systems for veterinary trainees who are simultaneously parenting.

Human medical training mirrors veterinary training, and there is a substantial body of literature describing human medical trainees who are simultaneously parenting. Among human medical postdoctoral trainees, approximately 15% to 35% of women and 40% to 90% of men are parents,5 although the numbers vary on the basis of type of residency training and reporting methods. Available literature5–8 on parenting support services in human medical training programs and perceptions of those services indicates a lack of adequate policies and formal and informal support services. Owing to the scarce attention paid to this issue in the veterinary literature, we assume that there is a similar, if not worse, systematic lack of formal and informal support services available to veterinary trainees who are also parenting, pregnant, or lactating or who are considering parenthood.

Wellness among veterinarians, veterinary trainees, and veterinary support staff is increasingly considered an essential component of veterinary educational curricula.9,10 Given that most veterinary trainees are also in their peak reproductive years, it is likely that the lack of open discussion and support for trainees who are parenting or considering parenthood contributes to stress and anxiety in that population.

The purpose of the survey reported here was to gather information about issues associated with parenting, pregnancy, lactation, and family planning for US veterinary trainees and their perceptions of pregnancy and parenting support services available at US veterinary training institutions. We hypothesized that such services would be lacking and that veterinary trainees would have overall negative perceptions of institutional support for issues associated with parenting, pregnancy, and lactation. We also hypothesized that, similar to the human medical profession,3,11 perceptions of pregnancy and parenting support services would differ between women and men.

Materials and Methods

Study design

The study had a cross-sectional mixed-method design and involved use of a confidential online survey of veterinary trainees (students and house officers) at AVMA-accredited veterinary training institutions in the United States. For the purpose of this study, house officers were defined as postgraduate trainees in a veterinary internship or residency program. The study protocol and survey were reviewed by and exemption was obtained from the Tufts University Social, Behavioral, and Educational Research Institutional Review Board.

Survey

All data collection took place between August 2016 and August 2017. The survey consisted of standardized closed-ended and open-response questions specifically designed to collect demographic information; rates of pregnancy, parenting, breastfeeding, and family planning intentions; perceptions regarding feasibility of and support for ensuring safety during pregnancy, parenting, breastfeeding, and family planning at veterinary institutions; and stress related to pregnancy, parenting, breastfeeding, and family planning at veterinary institutions. The last question of the survey asked respondents to provide comments on any component of pregnancy, parenting, breastfeeding, and family planning while enrolled in a veterinary training program. The survey was confidential and was administered by use of an online platform.a An email that included a description of and link to the survey was distributed to the associate dean for academic affairs at each of the 30 AVMA-accredited US veterinary training institutions with a request to forward the survey to veterinary trainees at that institution. Two follow-up email reminders were sent 2 and 4 weeks after the initial email in an attempt to recruit as many respondents as possible.

Data analysis

A statistical software programb was used to generate descriptive and inferential statistics. Crude comparisons were performed with χ2, Fisher exact, Mann-Whitney, or Wilcoxon signed rank tests as appropriate on the basis of variable type and bin size. Values of P < 0.05 were considered significant. Responses to open-response questions were coded on the basis of common themes as follows: not supported, does not seem possible, or would (does) add additional stress; financial concerns; time commitment makes having a family difficult; not talked about or no visible role models; positive comments; I don't think people in vet school should have children; no intent to have children; and other.

Results

Respondents

The survey was accessed 2,829 times and completed by 2,637 respondents. Two hundred thirty-seven surveys were excluded from the analysis for the following reasons: respondent was not enrolled in a veterinary training program (n = 19), respondent did not meet our definition of a veterinary trainee (eg, was a staff member, graduate [MS or PhD] student, research fellow, clinical instructor, clinician, or alumnus; 9), and respondent was enrolled in a foreign veterinary training program (209). Thus, a total of 2,400 surveys (2,088 completed by veterinary students and 312 completed by house officers) from 27 institutions were included in the statistical analyses. The number of veterinary students and house officers who completed the survey from each institution was summarized (Supplementary Table S1, available at avmajournals.avma.org/doi/suppl/10.2460/javma.253.10.1281). Demographic information for the study population was also summarized (Table 1).

Table 1—

Demographic information for 2,088 veterinary students and 312 house officers who voluntarily participated in a 2017 survey regarding pregnancy, parenting, and family planning while enrolled in a veterinary training program at 1 of 27 AVMA-accredited US veterinary medical training institutions.

VariableCategoryVeterinary studentsHouse officersP value
Age (y)25 (20–57)*29 (24–69)*< 0.001
GenderCisgender female1,836 (87.9)254 (81.4)0.004
 Cisgender male239 (11.4)57 (18.3) 
 Other13 (0.6)1 (0.3) 
EthnicityHispanic or Latino110 (5.3)23 (7.4)0.13
 Not Hispanic or Latino1,978 (94.7)289 (92.6) 
RaceAmerican Indian or Alaskan Native12 (0.57)2 (0.6)0.56
 Asian108 (5.2)23 (7.4) 
 Black or African American26 (1.2)4 (1.3) 
 Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander3 (0.1)0 (0) 
 White1,939 (92.9)283 (91.7) 
Relationship statusMarried or significant other929 (44.5)183 (58.7)< 0.001
 Single1,136 (54.4)122 (39.1) 
 Divorced, separated, or widowed23 (1.1)7 (2.2) 

Values represent the number (percentage) unless otherwise specified. House officers were defined as trainees in an internship or residency program. Values of P < 0.05 were considered significant.

Median (range).

Other refers to transgender female, transgender male, or gender nonconforming individual.

— = Not applicable.

Parenting

Of the 2,400 respondents, 185 (7.7%) reported they were parents, were pregnant (if cisgender female), or had a significant other who was pregnant. Among the 151 respondents who were parents, 62 (41%) reported that one or more of their children were born or adopted while they were enrolled in a veterinary training program. Respondents who were parents had a median of 1 child (range, 1 to 15 children), and the median reported cost of child care was $600/mo (range, $0 to $5,000/mo). Parenting during training, the median number of children, and median monthly cost for child care did not differ significantly between veterinary students and house officers.

For all subsequent comparisons, respondents who identified as males were classified as males and respondents who identified as females were classified as females regardless of the gender they were identified as having at birth. Of 2,102 female respondents, 61 (2.9%) reported that they were currently pregnant or trying to become pregnant. The proportion of female house officers (15/254 [5.9%]) who reported that they were trying to become pregnant was significantly (P = 0.002) greater than the proportion of female veterinary students (46/1,848 [2.5%]) who reported that they were trying to become pregnant. One hundred eighty-seven (8.9%) female respondents reported that they were considering or intended to adopt a child while enrolled in a veterinary training program. One hundred twenty-six (6%) female respondents reported that they had breastfed, were breastfeeding, or intended to breastfeed a child while enrolled in a veterinary training program, and the proportion of such respondents did not differ significantly between veterinary students and house officers.

A description of parenting characteristics and balance of parenting duties on the basis of gender identification was summarized (Table 2). Results indicated that perspectives for multiple aspects of parenting differed significantly between males and females.

Table 2—

Parenting characteristics as reported by the veterinary medical trainees of Table 1 who identified as males (n = 298) and females (2,102).

CharacteristicMalesFemalesP value
I am currently a parent, pregnant, or my partner is pregnant42 (14.1)143 (6.8)< 0.001
I intend to have children during my veterinary training31 (10.4)131 (6.2)0.007
I am considering having children during my veterinary training12 (4.0)327 (15.6)< 0.001
I perform more of the parenting duties compared to my significant other*1 (2.9)26 (22.4)0.006
My significant other performs more of the parenting duties compared to me*22 (62.9)28 (24.1)< 0.001
Parenting duties are equally performed by my significant other and by me*12 (34.3)53 (45.7)0.23
I am a single parent and perform all parenting duties*0 (0)9 (7.8)0.12

Values represent the number (percentage) of respondents unless otherwise indicated.

Results reported for only the subset of 151 trainees (35 males and 116 females) who were parents.

See Table 1 for remainder of key.

Perceptions of institutional support

Veterinary medical trainees were asked to rate their satisfaction with institutional support for pregnancy and lactation on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 = not satisfied at all and 5 = completely satisfied. House officers were significantly less satisfied than veterinary students with their institution's written policy regarding pregnancy (P < 0.001), how the institution handled pregnancy (P < 0.001), and institutional support for lactating mothers (P = 0.002; Table 3). Females were significantly less satisfied than males with their institution's written policy regarding pregnancy (P = 0.031) and how the institution handled pregnancy (P = 0.035). The small number of male respondents precluded us from comparing ratings between male and female veterinary students and male and female house officers.

Table 3—

Perceptions of veterinary medical trainees regarding institutional support for pregnancy and lactation stratified on the basis of trainee type (veterinary student or house officer) and gender.

 Satisfaction with institution's written policy regarding pregnancySatisfaction with how the institution handles pregnancySatisfaction with institutional support for lactating mothers
Population stratificationNo. of respondentsMean ± SD ratingNo. of respondentsMean ± SD ratingNo. of respondentsMean ± SD rating
Veterinary students3002.7 ± 1.25673.1 ± 1.24572.7 ± 1.2
House officers381.8 ± 1.1*852.5 ± 1.1*722.2 ± 1.1*
Male323.06 ± 1.22583.33 ± 1.21392.97 ± 1.35
Female3052.56 ± 1.225922.98 ± 1.194882.59 ± 1.18

Veterinary medical trainees were asked to rate their satisfaction with institutional support for pregnancy and lactation on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 = not satisfied at all and 5 = completely satisfied.

Value differs significantly (P < 0.05) from the corresponding value for veterinary students.

Value differs significantly (P < 0.05) from the corresponding value for males.

Perceptions of peer, faculty, and administrative support

Perceptions of support from peers, faculty, and administration by respondents who had been or were pregnant or were parents during the veterinary training program were summarized (Table 4). Trainees indicated that they felt their peers were more supportive than faculty during pregnancy and becoming a parent as well as more supportive of their roles as parents. Trainees also rated faculty as being significantly more supportive than administration of their roles as parents; however, the mean rating for support during pregnancy and during birth and becoming a parent did not differ significantly between faculty and administration. Perception of administration support of trainees who were also parents by veterinary students (mean ± SD rating, 3.44 ± 1.27) was significantly (P = 0.02) greater than that by house officers (mean ± SD rating, 2.8 ± 1.05). Perceptions of pregnancy and parenting support by peers, faculty, and administration did not differ significantly between male and female respondents.

Table 4—

Perceptions of support from peers, faculty, and administration during pregnancy, during birth and becoming a parent, and for being a parent as reported by the subgroup of 151 respondents from Table 1 who were parents.

 PeersFacultyAdministration
CategoryNo. of responsesMean ± SDNo. of responsesMean ± SDNo. of responsesMean ± SD
Support during pregnancy873.1 ± 1.1a873.7 ± 1.1b773.7 ± 1.2ab
Support during birth and becoming a parent573.9 ± 1.3a533.7 ± 1.2b463.5 ± 1.4ab
Support of being a parent1483.8 ± 1.1a1433.5 ± 1.2b1303.3 ± 1.3c

Veterinary medical trainees were asked to rate their satisfaction with support from peers, faculty, and administration during pregnancy and parenting on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 = not satisfied at all and 5 = completely satisfied. Respondents were not required to answer all questions; therefore, the number of responses varied among categories and groups.

Within a row, values with different superscript letters differed significantly (P < 0.05).

Challenges associated with balancing parenting and veterinary training

Perceptions of challenges associated with balancing parenting and veterinary medical training for the subset of 151 veterinary medical trainees who were also parents were summarized (Table 5). Ratings did not differ significantly between veterinary students and house officers. The mean rating for the statement, “I experience feelings of guilt when I cannot manage duties related to my veterinary training due to my parenting responsibilities” as assessed by female respondents (4.2 ± 1.1) was significantly (P = 0.03) greater than that by male respondents (3.7 ± 1.4), which we interpreted to indicate that female respondents were more likely than male respondents to feel guilty when they could not manage their veterinary training duties because of the demands of parenthood.

Table 5—

Summary statistics in regard to challenges associated with balancing parenting and veterinary training as reported by 116 female and 35 male US veterinary medical trainees who were also parents.

StatementMaleFemaleP value
I experience stress balancing my parenting and veterinary training responsibilities.4.2 ± 1.24.5 ± 0.80.82
My significant other experiences stress related to their parenting responsibilities because of the demands that my veterinary training has on my ability to co-parent.4.3 ± 1.24.2 ± 1.10.18
My veterinary training schedule has a negative impact on my ability to maintain a relationship with my children.4.0 ± 1.03.7 ± 1.10.07
I experience feelings of guilt when I cannot manage duties related to my veterinary training due to my parenting responsibilities.3.7 ± 1.44.2 ± 1.10.03
I experience feelings of guilt when I cannot manage duties related to parenting due to my responsibilities as a veterinary trainee.4.4 ± 1.14.6 ± 0.70.32
I feel like I place an undue burden on my peers due to my responsibilites as a parent.2.0 ± 1.32.2 ± 1.20.32
I think my colleagues feel like I am letting them down with regard to my duties as a veterinary trainee due to my responsibilities as a parent.1.9 ± 1.22.2 ± 1.20.07
I feel discriminated against due to my dual roles as a parent and a veterinary trainee.2.3 ± 1.42.5 ± 1.40.34
I am afraid to ask for changes in my schedule or time off from my schedule due to the perception that I should receive or need special treatment as a parent.3.7 ± 1.53.8 ± 1.40.42
I feel like being a parent while pursuing my veterinary training negatively impacts my learning success.3.6 ± 1.23.1 ± 1.30.16

Values represent the mean ± SD unless otherwise specified. Respondents rated each statement on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 = completely disagree and 5 = completely agree.

Values of P < 0.05 were considered significant. Respondents who identified as males were classified as males and respondents who identified as females were classified as females, regardless of the gender they were identified as having at birth.

Perceptions of trainees who were not parents

Perceptions regarding parenting and family planning during enrollment in a veterinary training program as reported by male and female respondents who were not parents were summarized (Figure 1). When stratified by trainee status, house officers (mean ± SD rating, 2.8 ± 1.4; n = 264) were significantly (P < 0.001) more likely than veterinary students (mean ± SD rating, 2.4 ± 1.4; 1,959) to agree that they would consider starting a family if a culture supportive of parenting existed. House officers (mean ± SD rating, 2.8 ± 0.9) were significantly (P < 0.001) less likely than veterinary students (mean ± SD rating, 3.1 ± 0.9) to agree that their institution was supportive of pregnant trainees and trainees who were also parents.

Figure 1—
Figure 1—

Perceptions regarding parenting and family planning during veterinary medical training among 1,959 female (dark gray bars) and 137 male (light gray bars) US veterinary medical trainees. Trainees were asked to rate their agreement with each statement on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 = completely disagree and 5 = completely agree. For each response distribution plot, the box delimits the 25th and 75th percentiles, the vertical line within each box represents the median, the brackets delimit the maximum and minimum responses excluding outliers, and the ovals represent outliers (> or < two-thirds of the upper or lower quartile, respectively). *Mean differs significantly (P < 0.05) between males and females.

Citation: Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 253, 10; 10.2460/javma.253.10.1281

Perceptions of safety by trainees who were pregnant or trying to become pregnant

Of 33 female respondents who were pregnant at the time of the survey, 21 (63.6%) reported that they felt safe being pregnant at their institution, whereas 12 (36.4%) reported that they felt unsafe or were unsure of their safety while being pregnant at their institution. Of the 28 female respondents who reported they were trying to become pregnant, 15 (53.6%) reported that they felt safe and had no concerns about becoming pregnant while enrolled in the training program at their institutions, whereas 13 (46.4%) reported that they felt unsafe or were unsure about becoming pregnant while enrolled in their training program. Perception regarding safety during pregnancy or while trying to become pregnant did not differ significantly between female veterinary students and house officers.

Comments

A total of 895 meaningful comments were obtained from respondents in response to the open-ended prompt to comment on any aspect of family planning and parenting during veterinary training. Representative statements on the basis of predefined themes were summarized (Table 6).

Table 6—

Summary of representative comments provided by the respondents of Table 1 when prompted to comment on any aspect of family planning and parenting during veterinary training categorized by theme.

CategoryNo. of responsesRepresentative comments
Not supported, does not seem possible, would (does) add additional stress412I feel as though I am not afforded the same opportunities as my male counterparts because I do want to have children. I believe that I have to heavily postpone my plans to have children because of my veterinary training. I think that deciding to continue my veterinary training beyond the first 4 years is always an idea that I struggle with because I do wish to continue, but I also want children, and I am afraid that I will be “too old” after I finish schooling, or that I won't be as good at my job if I decide to have children at all. I'm torn, and it makes me feel terrible that the profession seems to be “made for people who don't want children” because of the lack of support.
Time commitment required by veterinary education does not allow for children127A veterinary program puts constant mental and physical stress on a person. There is always a struggle to find balance in taking care of oneself, studying, getting exercise, and maintaining a healthy personal/social life. Due to the extensive burden already placed on veterinary students, it does not seem feasible to add children to the list of things that are battling for our attention.
No intent to have children97I do not want children ever.
Not talked about or no visible role models83It isn't a topic adequately discussed at our institution, which almost gives starting a family a negative stigma while attending school.
Financial concerns63From a financial standpoint, it would be no way feasible when I already can barely afford to spend the money to take care of myself.
Positive comments43Most of the faculty and administration has been supportive of my role as a mom.
I do not think people in vet school should have chldren24In my opinion, being pregnant during the times when it is necessary to be at a large animal hospital or in small animal clinics makes you a burden and liability to everyone around you.
Other99 

A total of 895 meaningful responses were assessed. Some comments fit into > 1 thematic category; thus, the number of responses tabulated sums to 948.

Discussion

The primary purpose of the present survey was to quantify the number of veterinary medical trainees who experience pregnancy, parenthood, and family planning during their veterinary training program and to describe veterinary medical trainees’ perceptions regarding their ability to balance parenting and the responsibilities associated with their training. A secondary purpose was to acquire preliminary data on the extent of institutional support available for US veterinary students and house officers in regard to issues associated with pregnancy, parenting, and lactation. Survey results supported our hypotheses that trainees would report challenges associated with pregnancy and parenting during veterinary medical training and that significant gender differences would be identified. For example, respondents who were parents reported high levels of stress for both themselves and their significant others owing to the challenges of balancing parenthood with the demands of veterinary training. Respondents who were parents also reported feeling guilty when they were unsuccessful in maintaining a balance between the demands of parenthood and veterinary training. Most male and female respondents who were not parents strongly agreed that they had intentionally delayed starting a family until after they had completed their veterinary medical training, which further implied that respondents perceived that veterinary training programs represented a substantial barrier to parenthood. One respondent commented, “When a classmate gets pregnant, we all ogle and contemplate if she's crazy.” A female respondent said, “I am an older student, and I feel like I will miss my chance to have children if I wait until I graduate. However, there is ZERO support for students … I have begun to think that I may never even have children due to … the demand of being a veterinarian. I also would not want to compromise my education, so there's no way I would ever allow myself to have a child while in veterinary school.” These data depicted the challenge high-achieving veterinary medical trainees (both those who are and are not parents and who are often at their peak reproductive potential) face when pursuing professional advancement and success within a training system that does not normally or readily accommodate pregnancy or parenthood.

Perhaps one of the most striking findings of the present survey was that 36% and 45% of female respondents who were pregnant or were thinking about becoming pregnant, respectively, did not feel safe or were unsure of their safety while being pregnant in their training program. In the open comment section, 1 respondent said, “Considering pregnancy in my 4th year, I inquired about exposure risks associated with the clinical setting … My school was unable to provide me with any information, and because of this utter lack of information, I delayed family planning until veterinary school is complete.” Clearly, at the very least, veterinary institutions should be doing more to provide trainees who are pregnant or breastfeeding or who are considering becoming pregnant adequate safety information in an easily accessible format, especially because there are known reproductive health hazards associated with the veterinary profession.12

Results of the present study indicated some notable differences regarding pregnancy and parenting between house officers and veterinary students. House officers were more likely than veterinary students to be parents or were trying to become parents, which may simply reflect age differences between house officers and veterinary students. However, this finding may also indicate that veterinary students delay having children until after veterinary school and requires further investigation. Compared with veterinary students, house officers were significantly less satisfied with institutional support regarding pregnancy and parenting. Difficulties associated with timing a pregnancy during veterinary training were expressed in multiple ways in the open comments section. One house officer summed it up as follows: “Overall I think there is a stigma associated with being a parent in a residency program, specifically for a female who would need to carry the child. I would have preferred to start a family much sooner, but put it off until the end of my residency so that I could have minimal impact on the service … I felt torn between the wishes of myself and my partner and the overwhelming sense of obligation that comes with a residency program.” Collectively, these findings corroborate those of a previous study4 conducted by our research group and suggested that institutional policies and support services for pregnancy and parenting are primarily directed toward veterinary students with few formal policies on the issue established specifically for house officers.

We also identified several significant differences between males and females in regard to pregnancy and parenting during veterinary training. Those findings paralleled survey results6,13 of human medical trainees in that women tend to delay pregnancy and feel more stress in regard to family planning, compared with their male counterparts. In the present survey, men were significantly more likely than women to be parents, become a parent, or report an intention to have children during veterinary training. However, among trainees who were parents, women were significantly more likely than men to perform most parenting duties. Women were also significantly more likely to report feeling guilty about their ability (or lack thereof) to balance responsibilities associated with parenting and those related to their veterinary training. Among respondents who were not parents, women were less likely than men to feel that having a child was feasible during veterinary training. One female respondent said, “I feel as though I am not afforded the same opportunities as my male counterparts because I do want to have children. I believe that I have to heavily postpone my plans to have children because of my veterinary training. I think that deciding to continue my veterinary training beyond the first 4 years is always an idea that I struggle with because … I am afraid that I will be too old after I finish schooling, or that I won't be as good at my job if I decide to have children at all. I'm torn, and it makes me feel terrible that the profession seems to be made for people who don't want children because of the lack of support.” These findings suggested that there may be systematic barriers for female students and house officers to successfully achieve pregnancy and parenthood during veterinary training, and this issue should be explored as a potential area for policy improvement. Results of 2 other surveys14,15 indicate that female veterinarians experience a greater level of stress than their male counterparts. Additional information is necessary to identify specific sources of stress, but it seems likely that at least some stressors associated with family planning and parenting continue after completion of veterinary training.

The present survey was not without limitations. A convenience sampling method was used, and thus there was a potential for selection and nonresponse bias. Although the survey was completed by respondents from 27 of the 30 US veterinary institutions to which it was sent, there may be significant differences in policies and attitudes in regard to pregnancy and parenting between the institutions from which responses were obtained and those from which responses were not obtained. Additionally, it is possible that veterinary trainees who were parents or considering parenthood were more likely to complete the survey than trainees who were not considering becoming parents. Finally, only survey results from US veterinary training institutions were included in the analysis. Parental leave policies vary dramatically between the United States and other countries. Further research is warranted to investigate whether the attitudes toward pregnancy and parenting reported by the respondents of the present survey are consistent with those of trainees in foreign veterinary training programs.

The findings of the present survey provided crucial information about an important facet of well-being for veterinary trainees and suggested that veterinary students and house officers face substantial challenges in becoming parents during their training programs. On the basis of these results, we believe that providing veterinary trainees accessible and confidential information regarding pregnancy safety, establishing faculty-based parenting mentor programs for trainees, destigmatizing parenting and family planning during veterinary training, and promoting wellness and self-care are low-cost steps US veterinary institutions can take to improve the experience of veterinary trainees. Future research should investigate the consequences of delayed parenthood on reproductive health and fertility of veterinary trainees and veterinarians, as well as the impact of challenges associated with pregnancy and parenting on fostering diversity in the veterinary profession.2,5

Acknowledgments

Supported by the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University.

The authors thank Dr. Deborah Kochevar, Dr. Angie Warner, Ms. Barbara Berman, and Dr. Lisa Greenhill for technical assistance.

The authors declare that there were no conflicts of interest.

Footnotes

a.

Qualtics, Provo, Utah.

b.

Stata/IC, version 14.2, StataCorp LLC, College Station, Tex.

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