A statewide shortage of veterinarians has prompted a government inquiry into the reasons people are leaving the industry in droves.
The NSW upper house committee for regions launched the inquiry in response to reports of burnout driving people to seek employment that offers higher pay and less stress. This has created a vicious cycle, where practising vets are left with more work, contributing to more burnout and the subsequent loss of workers.
This has created a vicious cycle, where practising vets are left with more work, contributing to more burnout, and subsequent loss of workers.
Riverina vets say this experience was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many more people sought pets for company at home they weren't prepared to care for in the long term.
Wagga veterinarian Lynne Bodell said it's a challenging career, and students were rarely prepared for the reality of working in the industry after studying.
"It's very difficult for a lot of vets to manage their days ... it's very demanding on your time," she said.
"You can't in most cases say 'I'm going to walk out the door now' - when there's dog dying on your table, you can't exactly pack your bags and go home.
"You have to have a very thick skin, and be very tough these days."
While pet and stock owners bemoan the cost of healthcare for their animals, vets are paid at significantly lower rates than their human medicine equivalents. Graduating vets can expect to earn somewhere around $80,000 to $100,000 a year - a number unlikely to rise much through the course of their career.
A graduate vet starting this year at Charles Sturt University (CSU) can expect to start their career with around $56,000 in debt.
Dr Bodell said the cost/benefit calculations weren't adding up for people studying to become vets. A six-year degree results in high student debt, and average earnings in the industry weren't sufficient to compensate students for time out of the workforce, and the debt the incur.
"There's a very big place [for government] in subsidising HECS debt for those who came to small rural areas" she said.
"Trying to repay that amount on quite a limited wage can be very difficult.
"Plus, obviously having a high pressure, high emotional pressure environment."
Associate Head of Veterinary and Equine Sciences at CSU Geoff Dutton said while they were graduating as many new vets as ever, they still weren't sufficient to meet current needs. He said this perpetuated the vicious cycle of vet burnout.
"It's a bit like a bathtub - we're still adding the same amount of water at the top, but it's all leaking out the bottom," he said.
"It's a high stress situation - you're a vet surgeon, and you've got owners and animals that are stressed, they project that on you ... it's compounding thing that we're taking on all the stress.
"As more people drop out, that stress is getting put on fewer and fewer people, so it's a compounding impact in that respect."
Dr Bodell said this problem was particularly pronounced for women - who make up the majority of vet graduates. She said the unpredictable hours were not conducive to the kind of family life desirable to some women.
"One of the biggest issues is juggling family time, and with a greater number of females in the vet industry, that's become a huge problem. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, it's just a fact of life," she said.
"The vet industry is basically my life, but I can certainly understand for people who have children, it is an extremely difficult position.
"As any parent knows, trying to manage a career and children really chews at both ends."
Rural, regional and remote vets have additional challenges. Dr Dutton said there was a trend of smaller clinics being amalgamated into larger regional practices, effectively removing nearby services from smaller communities.
This means that large animal specialists, like those who work on livestock, are forced to spend more hours in the care, and fewer hours caring for animals.
"There are large companies that buy up some of the practices, but a lot of the others out there just aren't viable," he said.
"So a number have closed, then people have hundreds of kilometres before there's another vets.
Dr Dutton said it was important the government took steps to fill some of these gaps, because the shortage may ultimately pose risks to the viability of farming livestock in the Riverina.
"If there's some kind of disease outbreak, you need a veterinarian to help," he said.
"If they're not around for hundreds of kilometres, we could have a serious problem.
"In primary production and health-wise anyway ... veterinarians are needed to help."
The committee leading the inquiry is currently seeking submissions on the vet workforce shortage.
Committee chair Mark Banasiak said they were looking to hold a broad based enquiry that covered virtually all areas of the industry.
"The committee would like to hear from vets, vet nurses, pet owners, farmers, industry and others about the factors that may be impacting access to veterinary care," he said.
"We are also interested in learning about issues which may impact on the veterinary workforce in Australia, including aspects of the current legislative and regulatory framework."
Submissions may be made via the committee's website until July 21. Further information about the inquiry, including the terms of reference is also available on the website.
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