Australian veterinarian shortage: Angry pet owners in Canberra compound chronic vet shortage

Emergency veterinarian Dr Candice Evans at the Animal Referral Hospital in Fyshwick is calling on pet owners to be more aware of what is and what is not an emergency in a bid to help them and GP vet clinics with workloads. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Emergency veterinarian Dr Candice Evans at the Animal Referral Hospital in Fyshwick is calling on pet owners to be more aware of what is and what is not an emergency in a bid to help them and GP vet clinics with workloads. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Veterinary clinics have urged people to show more patience and understanding as reports about pet owners abusing vets compound the industry's crippling chronic staff shortage.

The calls come as vets across the ACT reported being stretched beyond their means, with staff suffering burnout and mental health issues to keep up with demand as pet ownership rose during the pandemic.

Dr Candice Evans, clinical director of the emergency department at Fyshwick's Animal Referral Hospital, said the abuse compounded the pressures and stress the industry was already facing.

"I had a client yelling at me because they had to wait. I also had a client with a therapy pet come in and he told me if I couldn't save his pet, he was going to commit suicide," Dr Evans said.

"Pets are a bigger component of people's lives now, becoming a bigger part of their lives, which means they're expecting that much more from us.

"Vets sometimes don't want to deal with it anymore and it makes them sick of coming to work to try to save everything. We can only do so much but are still getting abused by pet owners."

The chronic staff shortage left the hospital choosing to close one weekend in April for non-critical appointments for the first time.

Dr Evans said they had "definitely seen an increase" in patients during the past 12 months.

"Easily double. I haven't seen anything like it before and I think it's not just in emergencies but vet clinics generally," she said.

"It's worldwide. Everyone's got more busy over time and we're getting no new vets, so some are getting tired and burnt out so they leave the industry."

As for support for the industry, Dr Evans said looking at the foundations of vet education and training was key.

"We need to get a lot more training with how to deal with the higher-intensity situations and with difficult clients," she said.

"We usually get thrown into the deep end with those stressful situations and aren't really prepared properly with how to deal with it."

Emergency veterinarian Dr Candice Evans at the Animal Referral Hospital in Fyshwick. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Emergency veterinarian Dr Candice Evans at the Animal Referral Hospital in Fyshwick. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

The hospital's business manager Jasdeep Phull said she wanted clients to understand the clinic, like most health centres, had a triage system.

"There could be two patients on a ventilator with three actively dying and there may be only one vet at a time," she said.

"You may be able to triage over the phone. Our nurses are all certificate- and diploma-trained and they can run things past vets," she said.

"If your pet is critical, for example if they're bitten by a snake, call ahead so we can have everything ready to save them."

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The most recent ACT government data showed while dog registrations in 2020 dropped from 512 in January to 199 in April, the trend had been upwards since.

It peaked at 584 in January this year with the average since January 2020 being 456 per month.

Research by the Department of Employment in May 2019 found employers continued to experience difficulty filling advertised veterinarian roles with shortages apparent for the third consecutive year.

Dr Michael Archinal at Manuka Vet Hospital said client abuse, although devastating, was an uncommon occurrence and was no worse during Covid.

"We actually sack abusive clients," Dr Archinal said.

"If they are abusive to our staff, being unreasonable or being threatening in any way, we'll sack them and send their clinical records to them and tell them not to come back, which helps our staff because they feel really empowered."

Dr Michael Archinal at Manuka Vet Hospital. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Dr Michael Archinal at Manuka Vet Hospital. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Dr Archinal said while he had not been abused, he knew of industry colleagues being pushed up against walls, being accused of being a vet for only financial gains and being accused of mishandling pets.

"We really go through a lot of trauma because we take all that responsibility on ourselves and not being supported by pet owners makes it very difficult," he said.

He encouraged clients to be kind and more understanding, saying vets were here for them.

"We do this because we actually want to help animals. We look after them as though they're our own. To be abused in that manner, it really cuts deep," he said.

"I do want to say that most Canberra pet owners go above and beyond and their kindness is fantastic."

Dr Eloise Bright, founder of the charity ACT Pet Crisis Support that provides subsidised vet care for low-income pet owners, said most people were "genuinely grateful and respectful towards vets".

Dr Bright said there were no excuses for being abusive and help for pet insurance and more not-for-profit charities were key to helping the workforce challenges.

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This story 'It really cuts deep': Angry pet owners compound chronic vet shortage first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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