- Veterinarians say they have been under huge pressure during the pandemic.
- Booming ownership and COVID-19 restrictions have exacerbated longstanding challenges in the sector.
- Recruiters say staff are increasingly looking to cut their hours, which could make the issue worse.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Alice Moore, a veterinarian, loves her job – but says the last two years have been “horrendous.”
She has spent six years as a small animal veterinary surgeon based in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, in Southwest England, after five years of training. As much as she adores animals, Moore said the pandemic has, at times, left her struggling to find the motivation to go into work.
Pandemic restrictions have limited her work to emergency care, and she has often had to consult owners in the surgery parking lot, she said.
As a veterinarian, you have a duty of care to your animals, and not being able to offer the usual service is disheartening, Moore told Insider. Absences due to COVID-19 outbreaks – or when schools were closed during the national lockdown – have added to the anxiety that comes with working during a pandemic.
“I feel like this job is going to destroy me one day, but I just can’t leave it,” Moore said.
Her experience is typical of many working as veterinary surgeons over the last two years. Industry bodies and veterinarians themselves say it’s driving many to burnout.
A recruiter Insider spoke to said that more and more vets wanted to cut their surgery hours, and warned this could exacerbate long-running challenges over working conditions within the industry.
Intense workloads, amplified by the emotional burden that caring for very sick animals often brings, can leave many veterinarians stretched, said James Russell, the senior vice president of the British Veterinary Association. In the UK, Brexit has led to further shortages of qualified staff.
COVID-19 exacerbated these problems, at a time when demand for services is soaring.
More than 3 million UK families have bought a pet since the start of the pandemic, according to a survey by The Pet Food Manufacturing Association. In the US, that number is estimated to be as high as 10 million.
Some surgeries have stopped registering new clients so they can keep on top of demand, piling further pressure on those surgeries that kept their books open.
This hasn’t necessarily resulted in vets working longer hours – they typically work 40-hour weeks – but it has increased the pressure they’re under.
“My lunch breaks for the last two years have probably been about 10 minutes,” Rory Cowlam, a vet with five years’ experience working in small animal care at a surgery in Dulwich, an upmarket district of London, told Insider. “The time pressure is absolutely insane,” he added.
Many vets have found it difficult to provide clients with the level of service that they typically expect, Cowlam said.
This can leave clients unhappy, and some have even targeted staff.
According to a survey by the British Medical Association released in July 2021, 57% of vets said that they felt threatened or intimidated at work – a 10 percentage point increase compared with 2019. The problem was more pronounced in small private clinics, like the ones that Moore and Cowlam work in.
Cowlam said people had squared up to him, and that he’d witnessed his colleagues receive abuse. While Moore hadn’t received any physical abuse, she said “the constant, low-level chronic dissatisfaction and backlash day in and day out gets very disheartening.”
Both say that the overwhelming majority of clients however are understanding and polite.
Vets want to cut their hours
Cowlam admits he is one of the lucky ones – he only spends three days a week working in a clinic, a schedule he switched to two years ago to focus on his other work in television and as an author writing about the sector.
Moore is planning to cut her days in the clinic from four days to three, she says.
The trend of veterinary staff looking for roles outside of the surgery is becoming more common.
“We get numerous calls every week from vet surgeons or nurses asking us to find them work that is non-clinical work – working for farming or nutrition roles where they can use their skills for non-clinical roles,” Justin Powlesland, CEO and founder of JHP recruitment, which specialises in the veterinary industry in the UK and US, told Insider.
Others are cutting down their hours by becoming temporary – known as locum – workers, Powlesland said.
“They know they’re going to be worked to the bone in those three days, but know they can earn as much, if not more money doing that than a permanent position,” he said.
Neither Cowlam nor Moore have plans to leave the industry full-time. Many of the immediate challenges posed by the pandemic will ease with time, they said – but both have at times worried about their profession.
“If the vet industry falls into disarray and we can’t provide the service that animals need, then pet owners around the country are screwed,” Cowlam said.