The shortage of vets is starting to bite in the south-west with Warrnambool vet Glenn Cuzens warning an increase in animals needing care was pushing staff closer to burnout.
A huge increase in the number of pets - driven by people moving from the city to the country and people working from home and getting a pet for company - had added to the pressure.
Dr Cuzens, from Warrnambool Veterinary Clinic, said the city was not alone in experience a shortage of vets.
"There is certainly a shortage everywhere," he said.
"With COVID and the pandemic it's just exacerbated things around increasing pets and animal numbers and just not having the extra capacity to cover that work.
"That's putting a lot more pressure on the vets that are working and, similar to what we're hearing in the human health side of the industry, people are just burning out."
Dr Cuzens said animal numbers had increased 25 to 30 per cent nationwide, and his clinic alone had seen a 30 per cent increase in patients. "It's a lot," he said. "More animals needing to be seen creates that extra workload."
He said Warrnambool had always been big enough to be able to attract staff but they were now finding it hard to get new people.
"That puts a little bit more pressure on some of the other clinics that are a little bit smaller that it's very difficult for them to provide an after-hours service because that will mean they are working every second night," Dr Cuzens said.
He said that even if he could find a vet from out of town, the housing shortages meant they would struggle to find somewhere to live.
The shortage also meant there was now a clinic in town that no longer provided an after-hours service, he said.
Dr Cuzens said while his clinic had maintained staffing levels, it meant waiting times had increased.
"Where you used to be able to ring up in the morning and get an appointment later that day, sometimes it's now the next day. For surgery it might be in to next week," he said.
"It really does mirror almost the medical human side of it.
"We don't make them wait so that animals are suffering but there's the potential down the track that this could affect animal welfare."
Dr Cuzens said thenumber of vets coming through university had increased, but that took time to filter through.
In the past vets coming in from overseas had been a good option, but the visa process had blown out to nine to 12 months, he said.
Dr Cuzens called on the government to consider a HECS forgiveness scheme for vets who based themselves in rural areas to help ease the shortage.
He said there were many towns across country Australia that did not have a vet and people were having to drive up to four hours to see one.
"Even some of the emergency 24-hour clinics in the city can't get staff so they actually can't see you," Dr Cuzens said. "It's an Australia-wide problem."
While the south-west had traditionally been insulated from the issues, Dr Cuzens said there were signs it was going to be difficult to maintain services levels.
He said foot and mouth was "on our doorstep" in Indonesia and that was a concern for our farmers.
"If that gets in then effectively our farm sector's going to be really severely impacted."
While he said he hoped it didn't happen, "the risk was going up every day".
Dr Cuzens said the government would then expect private vets to deal with the issue but he warned that "there's just no capacity for that to happen".
He said vets had been sent over to try and help with control measures and vaccines.
"It's a real concern for the whole industry really."
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