Warning for pet owners as vets face ‘perfect storm’

Animal Health

Vets across the country are facing a “perfect storm” of staff shortages and a huge increase in pet ownership, it’s been warned.

The situation has left many veterinary practices at breaking point and has resulted in some pet owners experiencing long waits for non-urgent treatment.

“UK’s biggest vets calling on pet owners to avoid no-show appointments.“

Pet emergency service Vets Now and daytime practices within the My Family Vets network have both been affected by the situation and they have urged pet owners to use video consultation services in non-emergency situations where possible and to avoid making routine appointments they can’t keep.

Since the end of 2019, the UK’s dog and cat population has risen by almost 50%, from 9.5 million dogs to 12.5 million and 7.5 million cats to 12.2 million, according to figures from the Pet Food Manufacturers Association.

Over the same period there has been a significant decline in vets from the EU registering to work in the UK, partly caused by Brexit. Last year, on average, 60 EU vets registered every month but that has since fallen to fewer than 20.

Veterinary staff becoming ill from Covid or being forced to self-isolate after being contacted by NHS test and trace has exacerbated the situation. Brexit has also compounded their workload, with small animal and farm animal vets needing to be available to sign off exports not only of animals, but any products of animal origin, this includes things you might not have thought such as crisp flavourings and weight loss products.

Emergency vet Dr Laura Playforth, professional standards director at Vets Now, which operates more than 60 out-of-hours clinics and pet emergency hospitals nationwide, said: “The rise in pet ownership has put unprecedented pressure on vet practices across the UK and there simply aren’t enough vets and vet nurses to meet demand.

“Add to this the situation around coronavirus and self-isolation and we’re facing the perfect storm.”

Just like in human health, vets and nurses triage cases, meaning life-threatening emergencies are seen first, but a rise in demand for veterinary services brought about by the pandemic puppy boom has resulted in waiting times going up for less urgent cases.

Dr Playforth said: “Most vets are asking pet owners to bear with them as waiting times may be longer than normal. Bring a book, water and some snacks and always bear in mind that if you do have a wait, it generally means your pet is not suffering from anything life-threatening.”

She also urged pet owners to trust their instincts when their pet is unwell and to always seek veterinary help in emergency situations. But she added that the rise of video consultation services has meant people can get peace of mind without having to travel to a practice.

Some services, such as Video Vets Now, will refund pet owners the online consult fee if they do need to be seen in person.

Dr Playforth added: “Unfortunately, there is a global shortage of suitably qualified vets and vet nurses and almost every veterinary business in the UK, Europe and the US is having problems finding good staff. This isn’t a new issue but the boom in pet ownership has accentuated it more.

“Many people don’t realise just how much stress this increased workload has put on vet practices.”

She also called on owners to help protect veterinary staff from being exposed to Covid by continuing to hand over their pets at the doors of Vets Now clinics.

She warned: “If one person inadvertently enters one of our clinics with asymptomatic Covid, it could cause our entire team to have to quarantine for 10 days. This would, almost certainly, result in us having to close clinics temporarily.

“We realise how incredibly difficult it is for owners who are unable to be with their pet at such a trying time and we’re truly sorry for this. Our vets and vet nurses want nothing more than to welcome pet owners back into our clinics.

“But we hope people understand our reasons for taking such a difficult decision. Our main priorities are our staff wellbeing and animal welfare, as well as ensuring all pet owners continue to have an out-of-hours emergency service that's accessible.”

Vets Now has already been forced to divert a small number of out-of-hours clinics temporarily due to staffing pressures. As a result, pet owners in an emergency have been asked to attend a clinic nearby.

The staffing crisis is also concerning owners of daytime veterinary practices.

My Family Vets is the UK’s biggest network of daytime vets and their vets have seen an increase in appointment no-shows lately.

Vicky Bridges, regional manager at My Family Vets network of clinics in the south of England said: “With a shortage of appointments available, we are calling on pet owners to let us know if they need to reschedule their appointment so we can use the time for another pet.

“We’re also encouraging preventative healthcare measures as much as possible as this will help prevent more serious health problems for pets later down the line. We’ve been sending out reminders around vaccination as well as stressing the importance of flea and worming treatments.

“Due to the lockdown puppy boom and the whole Covid situation, ensuring preventative health care has been correctly followed for all pets has been a real challenge.”

Figures show that up to 45% of registered pet owners haven’t received their initial vaccination course or subsequent boosters. Of those who are a member of a preventative health plan, such as Pet Health Club, the number of registered owners vaccinated jumps up to 85%.

My Family Vets has been running a campaign for pet owners around the importance of preventative healthcare, whereas Vets Now has been running a similar summer ‘staycation’ campaign, informing pet owners of the most common summer pet emergencies, and how to prevent them.

Both veterinary businesses have also been working hard to try to alleviate the staffing crisis since it started becoming a serious problem, including trying to recruit heavily from overseas.

Other solutions include improving their benefits packages to improve retention and attraction, with a focus on staff wellbeing, flexible working requests and Vets Now recently announced an industry-leading maternity pay policy.

Vets Now is also running a significant recruitment campaign over the summer months for Animal Care Assistant roles (the equivalent of Healthcare Assistants in human medicine).

Vets Now and My Family Vets have also set up BAME graduate placement schemes to try to attract staff from Black and Minority Ethnic communities, groups which are currently underrepresented in the veterinary professions.

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