Economy

How the pandemic puppy surge and COVID regulations are taking their toll on vets

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The COVID-19 pandemic saw an increase of people getting a pet, which saw an increase of people needing the services of a vet. This, coupled with COVID restrictions on how vets can operate their business, has had a severe impact on the well-being of veterinarians.

Video above: What’s really going on behind the closed doors of your local vet clinic? In the wake of two coronial inquests, veterinarians reveal why their job is pushing them to the brink. Full ep. on SBS On Demand.

Newly adopted pets and puppies have been coming in, oodles of them - literally, cavoodles, spoodles and other breeds. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to work from home, or be at home if a job has been lost. With time on their hands, and looking for a distraction, there’s been a surge in people adopting pets or buying a puppy.

For those people who already had pets, they’ve been enjoying their companionship, and in many cases they’ve been more closely observing their pets and eagerly heading to the vets for check-ups and other procedures. Or maybe it’s just been an excuse or an opportunity to get out of the house when lockdowns have been in place.

Veterinarians have been flat out since the pandemic hit, and the strain is showing. Veterinarians were confirmed as an essential service in March 2020. As COVID-19 quickly made its presence felt, practice managers nervously rostered their staff into split teams, so that if a team member was to become infected with COVID-19, then the alternate team could continue working.

Veterinarians quickly adapted to performing their consultations on pets outside of their vet hospitals – kerbside, or the pets were brought into the vet hospital for examination without the pet owners. Veterinary telemedicine was also utilised for assessing patients.

“As daily COVID-19 cases continued to rise, we decided that it was safest to adopt kerbside consultations as it is virtually impossible to socially distance from clients when animals have to almost always be held or restrained for examination," explained Melbourne veterinarian Dr Emma Robb, who in her almost two decades of veterinary practice, had never seen anything like it. 

"The client would wait in the car, speak to the veterinarian either by phone or in person outside. The patient was then taken inside for examination.

“I’d only recently returned to work from maternity leave, and working during the pandemic has been incredibly busy and stressful, with less staff working at a time, yet an increased demand for veterinary services.

"I didn't usually work on consecutive days being part time, whereas my colleagues had to come back and do it all again the next day, usually on reduced sleep.

“My mental health was not affected, however I was genuinely concerned about some of my full time colleagues. I also suspect we will see an increased demand for assessment of behavioural issues in pets and also for airway disease presentations given the numbers of ‘oodles’ and brachycephalic breeds purchased,” she said.

Vets
Dr Emma Robb examining a patient.
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It’s an experience shared by another Melbourne veterinarian, Dr Avril Williams. “Working during the pandemic was very tiring and stressful. I normally work a shorter shift as the third vet on the day, but with COVID-19 our workforce was quickly split into two teams comprising two vets and two nurses doing two consecutive 12 hours then two days off. I only coped as I’m not full time." 

“Time pressure was the overwhelming stress for me personally. The time it takes to collect history over the phone, go to car park to collect the animal, take it inside and examine it, ring the owners, perform procedures, dispense medication and then deliver the animal back outside to the car then disinfect oneself as well as door handles and equipment, then repeat for 12 hours in a mask,” she said.

In Ulladulla, on the New South Wales south coast, practice owner Dr Andrew Ottley has been mindful of the impact of the pandemic on his staff. “I normally have a rather relaxed type of personality, but during 2020, even I have had increased feelings of stress. It has been extremely busy, both with regular clients and many new clients who have made a ‘sea change during COVID-19 moving from Sydney and Canberra."

“There has been a little anxiety over keeping both staff and clients safe – in terms of maintaining staff levels to get through the immense workload yet abide by social distancing regulations, being aware of mental and physical health concerns of staff and thinking about possible economic consequences for the business from the onset of the pandemic.

"We fine-tuned our system of outdoor consulting and then the staff quite enjoyed the changed work conditions. So some ups and downs but I’m proud of the way we have handled the challenges overall,” Dr Ottley said.

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A patient being treated by team members from the Ulladulla Veterinary Hospital.
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Psychologist Dr Nadine Hamilton is a leading worldwide authority on veterinary mental health and wellbeing. She has seen a large jump in requests for her professional services as the pandemic has unfolded – both from veterinary individuals and organisations.

“In my doctoral research the five main contributing factors affecting veterinarian mental health were performing animal euthanasia, compassion fatigue, dealing with difficult customers, dealing with unrealistic expectations – both of themselves as well as those placed on them - and financial issues from both a customer perspective and business-owner perspective,” Dr Hamilton said.

Veterinarians commonly experience a values conflict. As caring and compassionate people who love animals and want to help, they also have to charge money for their services to keep the doors of their small businesses open. Pet owners often have financial limitations on what they can, or feel is appropriate to spend on caring for their pet. Caught in the middle, there’s the potential for feelings of guilt and angst as vets sometimes feel that they can’t treat an animal in the optimal way.

Throw into the mix the issues of sometimes demanding and abusive clients, busy workloads, long hours, and the anxieties of wondering if you’ve provided the best treatment for a pet, and you can see that in some ways there’s the perfect recipe for a collision between the inherent compassionate values of wanting to help, and the realities of working as a veterinarian.

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Many people purchased ‘oodles’ and brachycephalic breeds during COVID. Pictured, Dr Andrew Ottley.
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Vets are almost four times more likely to take their own lives than the general public.

“Sadly, due to veterinarians’ generally kind and compassionate nature, there are people who try to take advantage of this. Some veterinary workers take this on board as a personal issue, and do what they can to avoid conflict - often at their own peril. These issues can then mount up to the point where the veterinary worker is no longer able to cope with the demands placed on them - resulting in them either leaving the profession, or worse, taking their own life,” Dr Hamilton said.

After recognising the issues at play in the veterinary profession, several years ago Dr Hamilton set up the Love Your Pet Love Your Vet initiative to remind pet owners that whilst veterinarians are there to help, its important to take a moment to consider that prior to seeing you and your pet, the vet may have just been dealing with a really sick or injured animal, euthanased someone’s much-loved pet or be near the end of a gruelling 12 hour shift.

It’s about remembering to be kind and gentle, and to treat others like you’d like to be treated yourself.

“It is my hope that people can be more mindful of how their behaviour - good or bad, can have an impact on someone else. My expectations are that by highlighting these issues, some of the stress and pressure on veterinary workers can be reduced - and in turn, help improve the quality of their mental health,” Dr Hamilton said.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

Phil Tucak is a journalist and former WA Correspondent for SBS News and Living Black. He is also a veterinarian, and as the Wildlife Outreach Vet he works to share the conversation about conservation.

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