We get more and more comments from pet owners saying that they can’t find a vet. Yes, in an emergency, someone will pretty much always see their animal – even if it’s nearly an hour’s drive and they have to pay a steep surcharge. But for routine or even non-urgent care, in many parts of the country this is getting harder and harder. But why is this?

Ultimately, the veterinary profession in the UK is in crisis. There are too many practices who aren’t able to recruit enough vets to fill their rotas. And out of hours care is similarly in trouble. 

Vet Dewi Jones has recently been concerned about the wider impacts of this:

“Our profession is in crisis, staff shortages are a reality for the majority of us here and those left working are buckling under the pressure. When will the pet owning public realise that pet owners are heading into uncharted territory of not being able to find a vet to accommodate them. Animal welfare will be the biggest loser here.”

Is this just an excuse to push prices up?

An excuse – definitely not. There are a lot of possible reasons for the recent price rises, and shortage of vets is only one factor.

Other important issues are…

  • Historically, vets have massively undercharged for their work. This is only now starting to be corrected.
  • Veterinary medicines in particular are expensive to buy, but even more expensive to stock and store in the right quantities – and often vets can’t legally buy them at the prices online retailers sell them.
  • Veterinary medicine has come a long way, and the treatments available now are far more advanced and far more likely to be effective than 20 or 30 years ago – but as a result, they’re also far more expensive.
  • This medical price inflation isn’t just a veterinary issue – but here in the UK we have our NHS free at the point of use, so we don’t really realise just how expensive stuff is.
  • Over 50% of UK practices are now owned by corporate companies, who want to make money for their shareholders and owners – the vets aren’t getting paid that much more, but there’s now an extra tier (or three, or five) of management and investors who want their money out of the business.

So why are we worried about it?

Back to Dewi again – 

“The biggest concern however is lack of vets and pet owners unable to find vets to register. We’ve closed our books to new clients but still get multiple requests a day. The problem then is passed to our neighbouring vets which will eventually do the same and and close their books. This is my concern, no vets for all those pets which impacts animal welfare. We’re managing by sacrificing client care, for example taking longer to report results and phone calls. Currently patient care isn’t suffering but this is only because we’re managing the situation by limiting pets coming in through the front door.”

If there aren’t enough vets available, pets and other animals suffer. It’s that simple.

So why is it happening?

Now we come to the issue. No-one really knows. There are more vets graduating each year than there ever have been, but there are also more pets, and a lot more practices.

Some people are blaming the increase in women in the profession 

Over 80% of new vets now identify as female. Leaving aside the problem of “let’s blame the women” (which is always a bad answer to any question), it is true that women are more likely to take career breaks, and more likely to want to work part time for childcare, while men seem to be less likely to take up shared parental leave etc. This is a wider social issue, but it affects our profession too.

Some people are blaming Brexit

A lot of EU qualified vets are leaving the UK. While this has doubtless worsened the issue, the problems of recruitment and staffing have been there for years, so this doesn’t seem to be the only problem.

A bigger question is being asked about vet retention. 

Why do so many vets leave or want to leave? I don’t do much clinical practice any more (although in my case it was injury-related). Mental health is a huge part of this problem – vets are much more likely to take their own lives than other professionals. Yes, vets tend to be perfectionists, but other factors include the (however surprising from the outside) stresses of the job, very poor work/life balance, and very long hours. And of course, right now that is so much worse than usual because of Covid… There’s the catching after lockdown, but also the reduced efficiency from trying to work in often poorly designed buildings in a Covid-safe manner, and the constant risk of a team member having to self-isolate making the situation even worse.

It might just be that we now have a generation of vets coming through who aren’t willing to sacrifice themselves for the profession.

Some vets blame unreasonable behaviour by some pet owners. 

Now, it definitely does happen – but the majority of pet owners are great, and more than compensate for the obnoxious minority.

Others blame the corporates

Many are concerned about new managers imposing a stressful “KPI culture”. Along with a perceived loss of autonomy as a professional, this has driven a number of people I know out of practice. But while it might explain why they don’t want to work for that employer, if they don’t like the management style, it doesn’t explain why they’re leaving the profession as a whole.

So what’s the solution?

I don’t know. And I don’t think anyone does. As some readers have already pointed out, it’s a “perfect storm” of problems all hitting at once.

But here’s how you can help to be part of the solution. 

If your practice is struggling to fit you in – don’t kick up a fuss at the receptionist or the nurse or the vet. They don’t like it any more than you do. But if they’re short staffed, and having to cover two people’s workload, they don’t need to be told there’s a problem: they already know that!

And if you’re happy with what your vet has done – tell them! Let them know you appreciate them. If you don’t want to do it face to face, that’s fine, so leave a positive review of the practice.

And if you’ve got any other ideas, let us know in the comments!

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