An unprecedented shortage of veterinarians and an big increase in pet ownership has created a “perfect storm” resulting in longer waiting times for routine procedures, experts say.

A shortage of vets was compounded by the border closure because of Covid-19.

Vet Partners operations manager Callum Irvine said a border exception for 30 vets last year and a further 50 earlier this year still left the country far short of the number needed. Getting spots in MIQ booked had proven difficult. Many of them have not yet arrived as a result.

A survey of the Veterinary Association’s members last year found there were 120 practices in need of about 220 vets throughout the country, and across specialities.

An association spokeswoman said about 120 newly qualified vets entered the workforce each year.

Companion Animal Council general manager David Lloyd​ said microchip registrations, a good indication of pet ownership, had increased 35 per cent in the first six months of this year compared to the same period last year.

Dog ownership had increased 30 per cent and cat ownership had increased 40 per cent, Lloyd​ said.

The previous two years cat registrations were completely flat, meaning that people weren’t adopting many cats. And I suspect that big bounce shows an explosion in the cat population as de-sexing stopped abruptly in April last year,” he said.

Lockdowns had also encouraged the trend, as workers spent more time at home. Companion animals had become more popular as a result.

Lloyd​ said he expected the trend would continue over the next six months, as registrations continued to rise every month.

Irvine​ said the industry now had to think about what it would do differently. Vet Partners owned more than 50 practices thorugout the country and was the largest private employer of vets.

It has been the perfect storm for us. We are reaching that crisis point where everyone has coped and survived through the Covid period but its increasingly obvious that there is not going to be any quick solution with vets coming over the border.” Sick animals would still get care but pet owners would have to wait longer for routine things such as dental care, vaccinations and checks, he said.

Veterinary Association chief executive Kevin Bryant​ said pet owners had traditionally expected to be able to see vets straight away but would have to learn to see it in the same way as seeing a GP.

You have to wait. They will always respond to an emergency. A few people have been getting grumpy with our vets but there are only so many hours in the day.” Irvine​ said Vet Partners had had to close two practices in Christchurch in the last year, and one in Wellington. The group had been able to consolidate clinics and move staff to other practices to retain them, but this wasn’t the case for many others.

I think there are many clinics across the country that are very strapped and constrained and operativing far below the level they would like to.” Bryant​ said there was greater demand from farmers at the moment due to seasonal calving and lambing.

They are really busy at this time of year anyway and practices are having to, in some cases, halt companion animal services due to shortages. Practices are having to take measures to manage workload on their vets.” Veterinary nurses and technicians were having to step up and take a more frontline role, which allowed vets to focus on tasks only they could do and gave nurses and technicians a chance to more fully utilise their training, he said.

Anecdotally, salaries for all skill levels were increasing, he said.

Irvine​ said the fixed pool of vets meant they were able to negotiate strongly while other practices reported a culture of poaching talent had emerged as practices fought it out for staff.

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