Vets feel the strain as pets boom and labour shortages hit

In the eyes of investors, the vet business is booming. Shares in CVS Group and Pets at Home, companies which supply vet services, are up about 115 and 70 per cent, respectively, since the start of last year, thanks in part to a rise in pet ownership during the pandemic. An investment this year in IVC Evidensia valued the private equity-owned vet company at €12.3bn, four times higher than two years earlier, and more than 32 times IVC’s earnings in the year to March. A data provider described the valuation as “stratospheric”.

But the boom has a dark side. Veterinary associations from the US to Australia are warning that burned out vets and nurses are leaving the profession. In the UK, the number of contacts received by Vetlife, a helpline for vets needing emotional, financial or mental health support, reached almost 4,000 in 2020, up tenfold since 2014. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons has called a summit on workforce shortages next month, while the British Veterinary Association has pleaded with people to “think long and hard” before getting a pet.

“I’m tired of going home in tears,” wrote one member of Veterinary Voices UK, a popular private Facegroup group, this past weekend. “I’m tired of worrying what the next day will bring. I’m tired of being tired. How did we get here?”

There is a similarity between burned out vets and the other staff who are in short supply this year, such as HGV drivers, meat factory workers and hospitality staff. Every labour shortage of 2021 has its roots in deeper problems which have gone unresolved for years.

The proximate cause of the vet shortage is the pandemic, which boosted the number of pets while disrupting services and causing staff absences. In the UK, Brexit has exacerbated the problem. In recent years, more than half the number of vets registering in the UK came from other EU countries, according to the RCVS.

But the warning lights were flashing for years before. In 2019, only 48 per cent of vets and 51 per cent of veterinary nurses told RCVS surveys they would choose the profession if they could start their career again. A third of recently qualified vets felt not at all or inadequately supported. A quarter of nurses said they planned to leave in the next five years, up from 15 per cent in 2014. Both groups scored lower on a measure of mental wellbeing than in 2014, with particularly low scores for the statements “I’ve had energy to spare” and “I’ve been feeling relaxed.” Studies have shown that suicide rates are higher among vets than the general population in the US, Norway, Australia and the UK.

Vets say long and antisocial hours are one problem. As with HGV drivers, overnight and weekend shifts strain family life. “The fact that everyone’s too exhausted to go for a run after work or visit friends at the weekend, you can end up in a lifestyle that’s quite unhealthy for your mental health,” Danny Chambers, a vet, told me. There is also an emotional toll from dealing with grieving pet owners, or angry ones who accuse vets of profiteering. “Some people will scream at you about how you’re a money-grabbing bleep to your face,” says Karmen Webbe, another vet.

In fact, vets aren’t paid a huge amount given the length of their degrees (typically five years in the UK). The median salary for a vet was £45,150 in 2020, according to the Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons. Median pay for veterinary nurses is between £23,000 and £28,300 depending on the region, and many are expected to work unpaid during their training placements. For many vets, the job is a vocation they have dreamed of since childhood. Lower pay than other professions is one price of doing what you love, but it can quickly become a sore point when you’re too tired to love it any more.

Then there is the trend of large vet companies buying up independent practices. The RCVS survey found plenty of disquiet from vets who were uncomfortable with the sharper focus on profits and targets. On the other hand, some vets say the corporates have more modern HR practices, such as giving time in lieu for weekend shifts, and offer more structured graduate programmes. Overnight work is also being outsourced more often to dedicated out-of-hours service providers, which should mean fewer on-call shifts.

Company managers would be smart to make bigger moves to improve pay, conditions and retention in the veterinary profession, especially for nurses. Investor bullishness is all very well, but the shortages of 2021 offer a simple lesson: if an industry doesn’t work for the people who work in it, one day it might not work at all.

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