'Bill shock': pet owner abuse pushing vets into despair


Pet owners should be taught realistic expectations about the costs of health care for animals as veterinarians bear the brunt of people's "bill shock" with tragic consequences.

A NSW parliamentary inquiry examining workforce shortages in the veterinary industry has been told about a growing mental health crisis in the sector due to workload pressures and client abuse.

Garry Putland, whose 33-year-old veterinarian daughter Sophie took her own life in 2021, said the industry had damning mental illness statistics that would be unacceptable in other healthcare professions.

Vets are four times more likely to die by suicide than the general population and, on average, a vet takes their own life every 12 weeks.

Mr Putland said people expected animal health care to be similar to that for humans, which is free or subsidised through Medicare, and called for more education about how much it really costs to own a pet.

"The issue around bill shock is that people don't understand that we don't have a subsidy that supports the vet industry and what you are paying is the true cost of delivering the services," he said.

"We need to set that expectation that when you buy a pet, it could be costly.

"So part of this is about how we get the industry to be much more open and transparent about that pricing, and then how do we get the expectation of clients to be much more realistic about the true cost of delivering the service."

Mr Putland started Sophie's Legacy, an organisation aimed at making the vet industry safer and reducing customer abuse.

The organisation rolled out a national education campaign called We're Only Human that asks animal owners to take a pledge to be kind, respectful and understand the massive pressures impacting veterinary staff.

Mr Putland urged the government to commit funding for preventative mental health care to ensure vet staff had sufficient support.

Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital chief executive Stephen Van Mil said the industry needed to address unsustainable mental health distress as a matter of urgency.

"We're many vets short in this country as it is right now and we just can't afford to lose any more through burnout, drop out, or suicide," he said.

Workforce shortages also resulted in significantly higher costs for vet services in the past few years as demand outweighed supply.

Coupled with spiralling cost of living, RSPCA NSW chief veterinarian Liz Arnott said owners could be forced into not seeking care for their pets.

"The risk is that excessive barriers to veterinary care will result in animals not receiving veterinary treatment when necessary and that cost pressures on owners will force animal relinquishment or euthanasia of treatable animals," she said.

RSPCA senior manager Ann-Margret Withers said vets often experienced ethical distress when they had to euthanise animals because the owner could not afford treatment.

Dr Withers said the government could provide more support through subsidies to ensure pet ownership did not become a privilege reserved for the wealthy.

"There's a saying that the people who have the least often need a pet the most," she said.

"There are lots of models for access to vet care that is government supported (such as) developing low cost clinics.

"If there was more funding then (vets) would be able to support that need and that would have the flow on effects of improving animal welfare."

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