Vets are on a “knife edge” as they face a “perfect storm” of staff shortages caused by Covid and Brexit coupled with a lockdown pet boom.
Calls to the industry’s confidential Vetlife helpline have surged during the pandemic as veterinary workers struggle to keep up with demand, with 3.2 million households getting a new pet since the first lockdown.
People are being urged to check whether they have access to veterinary care in their area before getting a dog or cat as many practices have been forced to close their books to new healthy animals for months at a time.
Dr Lara Wilson, who is lead surgeon at the Vets Now pet emergency hospital in Glasgow, said the current situation was “unprecedented” in the 25 years she had worked in the profession.
“The last time we had something like this was foot and mouth,” she told The Independent. “I don’t think anyone could have predicted a viral pandemic would result in a boost in pet numbers.”
The vet said the “single biggest impact” on the hospital was a 75 per cent rise in cases compared to two years ago caused by the increase in pet ownership, while Brexit has meant staff vacancies are not being filled and Covid has led to travel restrictions and workers having to isolate at home.
“Historically, the veterinary profession had just about enough vets,” she said. “Pre-Brexit and pre-Covid we were bumping along at quite a high stress level but just about where we needed to be. It was generally possible to recruit somebody else and we did have a constant stream of people coming from Europe into the country to work with us.
“That has dried up; with coronavirus nobody is moving and we have the complication of Brexit and those are mixed up together.”
There are typically about 2,000 job vacancies in the UK veterinary sector every year, but only 900 vets qualify in the country. Vets from the EU have usually filled this gap, but Brexit has seen numbers plummet.
James Russell, senior vice president of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), said figures from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) show the UK welcomed 757 vets from the EU between January and August 2019 – but only 250 in the same period in 2021.
New rules have also been issued by the RCVS meaning vets from overseas must now meet a higher standard of English, at level 7 in the International English Language Testing System compared to level 4.1, to work in the UK. Requirements for slaughterhouse vets have been relaxed to a level 5 until next summer.
Mr Russell said: “The government and Food Standards Agency (FSA) had cause in the summer to approach the Royal College council and ask them for a derogation to bring people into the country at a lower standard of English language to work in a supervised way in official control – so slaughterhouses essentially – as vets because they recognised we were at risk of not being able to fulfil those official controls.
“That’s there to ensure the food that appears on Tesco’s shelves is safe to eat. When we are in a position where government and FSA are approaching the Royal College to say ‘we need to do something different here’ that, to me, points to saying we really are on a bit of a knife edge here.
“What concerns me is that we are not at the top yet of demand in that sector. So as we get to the end of the grace period of exports into Northern Ireland, as we begin imposing import checks on goods coming into the country, both of those are going to put additional requirements on veterinary time and everyone we draw away into that has to come from somewhere.”
The situation is expected to be a “slow burner”, with Dr Wilson predicting it could be four to five years before new vets begin filling roles, while lockdown pets could be around for the next 12 to 15 years.
Dr Wilson said another side effect of the pandemic was a lot of nervous, frightened young dogs who had not been socialised properly – while puppy farmers have taken advantage of the boom and sold sick dogs to families.
She said situations had also arisen where new owners unable to find anywhere to register their pet had led to animals not receiving treatment in the early stages of an illness and having to be put down by the time they have seen a vet when they could potentially have been saved.
Ruth Elliott, clinical director at Acres Vet Centre in Airdrie, said the last year or two “really has been a perfect storm”.
“This has come upon us quickly,” she told The Independent. “We expected Brexit to bring with it the challenges but nobody could’ve predicted the pandemic.
“I can hand on heart say I think the stress levels of the profession as a whole have never been so great. We’ve been suffering for quite some time with stress, with burnout, but it really is unprecedented, it’s strange times, difficult times.
“Looking back, if you can imagine your worst day in work, a day where you used to come together at the end of the day and go ‘that was the day from hell wasn’t it’ – that would be a once-a-month scenario, that’s every day now.”
Ms Elliot said her practice would ordinarily be able to fit an animal in for a booster shot within the same week, if not the same day, when a client called to make an appointment, but now the waiting time is six to eight weeks, while routine operations can take several months.
“We worked through lockdown and that was horrendous, and we didn’t think that could get any worse and we prayed for the time we could have clients back in the building but we’ve had no respite,” she said.
“I know personally the number of people looking at therapy, that kind of thing, the calls to Vetlife; the strain on them has increased significantly, the mental health of the whole profession is taking a pounding.
“We’ve lost one member of staff from the profession altogether. A member of staff left nursing because of the stress to do the same hours and same pay.”
Vetlife saw its busiest year in 2020 – and 2021 looks set to match it.
A survey carried out by BVA in spring this year found 70 per cent of those working with small animals were witness to or on the receiving end of verbal or physical abuse in the preceding 12 months.
Dr Wilson said physical or verbal abuse was now a “weekly, if not daily, occurrence”.
“We’ve always had a level of that. We understand we are dealing with upset people who have a sick pet they are really worried about, and now when they are having to wait longer to be seen … people are angrier, people haven’t had their normal outlets, normal pleasures, everybody is under pressure,” she said.
The surgeon appealed for understanding from pet owners and urged people to plan ahead by booking appointments well in advance.