Pet owners may struggle to get care as vets threaten to quit amid pandemic crisis

PET owners could begin struggling to access care for their animals if the "extremely worrying" crisis of vets quitting the profession continues.

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Staff shortages and a rise in pet ownership during the pandemic has put the profession under “extreme pressure”. Many doctors have reported struggling with their mental health, and even resorted to suicide in extreme cases. Dr Samantha Webster, a vet at Joii Pet Care, said: “The wider veterinary profession is under extreme pressure currently due to so many factors including staff shortages, rises in pet ownership and longer, unsociable working hours.

“This escalating crisis is extremely worrying for the health and prospects of vets, as well as the welfare of pets in the UK who may not be able to see a veterinary professional when they need it most.

“We often receive calls from pet owners whose local vet practices have closed their doors to new clients.”

Vets have been under immense pressure in the past few years because of the “perfect storm” of Covid-19, and an increase in pet ownership and Brexit, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) said.

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At least 3.2million households in the UK have acquired a pet since the start of Covid, a report by the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association said.

There are around 27,000 vets in the UK, figures showed.

A spokeswoman for RCVS suggested customers who hurl abuse at staff are contributing to the crisis.

She said: “We understand how much the public care about their pets and animals, and know that non-routine visits to vets can be stressful.

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More people adopted pets for company in the lockdown (Image: Getty)

“However, we would like to remind people that vets, vet nurses and practice staff have the right to work in a safe environment.

“There is no place for abusive behaviour towards practice staff and we expect veterinary practices to support any member of their team who might be subject to discriminatory behaviour and to call out and challenge any incidences of such from clients.”

The British Veterinary Association found six in 10 vets had felt intimidated by clients’ language or behaviour in the year to July 2021.

The poll found the issue was worse in small animal practices, where two-thirds of vets had received abusive, aggressive or threatening behaviour from pet owners.

Justine Shotton, president of the British Veterinary Association, said: “The vast majority of our clients have been enormously supportive and understanding and really helped us through the pandemic, but it’s the tiny minority of abusive clients that can stick in our minds.”One in 20 calls to the Vetlife helpline is from a vet experiencing suicidal thoughts, figures have revealed. Vets have a suicide rate four times higher than the general population and twice as high as other healthcare professionals, Oxford’s Centre for Suicide Research found.

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Vets have a suicide rate four times higher than the general population (Image: Getty)Dr Webster said: “Vets working in traditional practices are increasingly struggling with their mental health, and high levels of suicide are sadly reported among our profession because of this.

“Becoming a vet is ultimately a vocation which takes years of training and it’s just not right that higher numbers have recently been leaving the profession because of pressures outside of their control.”

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Thousands of lockdown pets draining veterinary services, by Steph Spyro Vet Alice Moore has laid bare the toll of thousands of new lockdown pets on an already “depleted veterinary workforce”.

She said a rise in pet ownership, limited access to PPE and oxygen, and consultations outside at the height of the pandemic made the job “difficult and stressful”.

The vet, 30, from Somerset, said clinicians were now treating anxious dogs with behavioural problems because they had been unable to attend training classes or interact with other pups during the pandemic.Alice, who has been a vet for seven years, said: “They have owners that are really struggling and that’s not the fault of anyone, it’s just a product of the situation.

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Many dogs are anxious after lockdown due to a lack of interacting with other pups (Image: Getty)

“But it does make our lives harder. We’ve got patients that are harder to handle and therefore treat that’s definitely taking a bit of a toll on us as a workforce.

“There’s been a big increase in first time dog owners that are not necessarily experienced at keeping pets.

“We’ve got a very large pet population but we’ve also got a depleted veterinary workforce.”

Alice said a combination of factors was putting a strain on the profession, including bad tempered customers and misconceptions about the price of animal care.

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She told how animal insurance had failed to increase in line with the number of new pets acquired during the pandemic.

The small animal vet has never considered leaving the profession but admitted she had found parts of the last two years “emotionally draining”.

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Staff have had to deal with difficult customers (Image: Getty)

She said: “We’re no strangers to stress. I’ve been very tired. I have found it quite emotionally draining. I’ve found it stressful but I’ve been okay.

“I don’t think my mental health has suffered any more than anyone else’s during this pandemic.

“There’s lots of reasons why people leave, but I think some of it is related to the stress and the pressures of the job.”

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Comment by Justine Shotton, president of the British Veterinary AssociationThe veterinary profession has worked incredibly hard over the last few years, having to adapt to Covid-19 restrictions and an unprecedented increase in pet ownership while still feeling shockwaves from Brexit.

This “triple whammy” put practices under a huge amount of pressure, leaving many vets and their teams exhausted as they worked to keep animal health and welfare front and centre despite difficult circumstances.

There has been a surge in pet ownership since the start of the pandemic, with 3.2 million households acquiring a new pet.

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But this rise – in particular of “pandemic puppies” – heaped on more pressure at a time when practices had to implement Covid restrictions to keep colleagues and clients safe, such as virtual or outside appointments and scaled back rotas, and cope with Covid-related staff absences. For some practices, this led to longer waiting times and staff working hours, or even having to close their books to new clients.

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Many practices are also short-staffed because Brexit has exacerbated longstanding recruitment and retention issues in the profession. Recent years have seen far fewer EU vets coming to work in the UK, coupled with spiralling demand for vets to issue certificates for animal products for trade and pets ahead of travel.

All of this has also had a significant emotional toll on a profession where wellbeing levels have been an ongoing concern. The vast majority of our clients have been enormously supportive and understanding and really helped us through the pandemic, but it’s the tiny minority of abusive clients that can stick in our minds.

Shockingly, nearly six in ten (57%) of vets in clinical practice reported to BVA they had been intimidated by abusive, aggressive or threatening language or behaviour from clients in the last year*. In small animal practice, this rose to two-thirds of vets (66 percent).

It’s shocking – but perhaps not surprising – then to hear three-quarters of vets have reported they’re very or quite concerned about stress and burnout in the profession, with concerns for their own mental health and wellbeing and their colleagues’.

We’re urging everyone to remember to always be kind and to Respect Your Vet. No one should have to face intimidation or abuse just for doing their job during a global pandemic.

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