Concerns have been raised for the welfare of Canberra pets as a chronic shortage of veterinarians and steady rise in pet ownership during COVID push vets to breaking point, with some practices making significant operating changes to provide relief for staff.
Earlier this month, Canberra Veterinary Emergency Services announced that their service would be closed midweek from April 7 to April 22.
The clinic stated the reduced hours were for the mental wellbeing of staff.
"The pandemic has put an enormous strain on all emergency facilities including veterinary ones, which has taken a toll on our staff," its statement reads.
"Veterinary shortages and burnout have occurred in many clinics throughout Australia and unfortunately they have affected our clinic as well."
The clinic has referred clients with emergency care to the Animal Referral Hospital in Fyshwick.
On Friday, the hospital stated it would be closed to public consultation for non-critical appointments* this weekend due to being "critically short-staffed and unable to provide a comprehensive service".
"This is a national problem and vets generally are experiencing high workloads, more critical cases and severe staff shortages. Our colleagues at CVES are open and operating for your emergency needs."
CVES' director Dr Tracy Hughes urged people to be patient as the health of vets was the top priority to ensure animal care can be maintained.
"You don't want to burn someone that they leave the industry," Dr Hughes said.
"We already have a high attrition rate - staff are working harder because we're having 1.5 times the number of consultations and vets are leaving the industry at a faster rate."
She said pet owners should call their regular vets first who may then refer them onto the emergency departments.
In April last year, RSPCA ACT reported the number of adoptions doubled the weekly average in a two-week period.
ACT Government data shows that while dog registrations in 2020 dropped from 512 in January to 199 in April, the trend had been upwards since.
It peaked at 584 in January this year with the average since January 2020 being 456 per month.
Dr Michael Archinal at Manuka Veterinary Hospital said the situation had "reached a crisis level".
"I've been a vet for 32 years. Initially when we advertised for vets, we had 15-20 applicants. Now we might have one or two and it may take a month to find those vets," Dr Achinal said.
"In every practice I've spoken with, they're all 20 per cent busier during COVID.
"We're already stretched beyond our means and suddenly there's 20 per cent more work - that's why it's reached a crisis level."
Dr Archinal said that while a rise in pet ownership was a factor, the situation was "multi-factorial" that included quicker pet adoption rates.
"The position of the pet in the household unit has changed dramatically over 30 years. Now especially with COVID, people are realising the importance of a pet in the family structure and they've always been a family member but even more so now," he said.
As for Manuka Vet Hospital, operations have changed to accommodate staff and services during the fluctuating pandemic.
"What we've done specifically is we can no longer accept new clients who are not directly around from our practice because there's too many people wanting that," Dr Archinal said.
"This was unheard of in the industry."
Research by the Department of Employment in May 2019 found that employers continued to experience difficulty filling advertised veterinarian roles with shortages apparent for the third consecutive year.
Only 29 per cent of vacancies were filled with 0.7 suitable applicants per vacancy. Nearly a quarter of employers surveyed attracted no applicants.
"This is despite completions in veterinary courses being at record highs and employment outcomes for recent graduates remaining strong," the department stated.
"Shortages have been present for three consecutive years and are widespread across geographical locations and veterinary specialisations."
Dr Alison Taylor, who is one of the partners at Kippax Veterinary Hospital and who sits on the Australian Veterinary Association's board that researches workforce shortage, said AVA had been lobbying the federal government to put veterinary services on its priority list for skilled migration.
"Within the industry, we also need to focus as much as we can on retaining vets," she said.
"We also ask clients to be patient.
"If they do the preventative care we suggest, they might find that the animals are healthier and treatment becomes more proactive."
In addition to traditional practices, other models have also been hit hard.
Veterinarian Dr Jackie Campbell at Sunset Veterinary Care, which runs in Canberra and across the country to provide dedicated mobile palliative care and euthanasia service at clients' homes, said they had "seen an increase in workload and referrals" during COVID.
"The lack of vets is industry wide and exacerbated by COVID and fewer international vets coming over," she said.
"This is compounded by an increase in pet-ownership numbers, which is actually one of the key things in increasing the workload.
Dr Campbell said she wanted to let other vets know that they were here for additional support if needed.
"The high volume of cases of animals that need to be seen and supported take a really heavy toll, but the reason we get up every morning is we want to take care of people's animals," she said.
A January 2021 academic article published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science found that most Australian practices had emergency preparedness plans in place for various scenarios during COVID.
"However, the restrictions on human movement to contain the spread of COVID-19, coupled with the economic impact and the health effects of COVID-19 on the skilled workforce, constituted a new threat to animal welfare for which there was no blueprint," the researchers said.
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*This story has been updated to reflect that the closure is only for non-emergency consultations.