The global COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone of us - changing our lifestyles, our financial circumstances, our work practices and the way we interact with one another.
In March 2020, my work as a veterinarian changed radically.
One day it was business as usual, the next our team was decked in full personal protective equipment (trying not to frighten our patients), asking clients about their travel history and whether they had signs of illness and staying far apart to minimise the risk of inadvertent viral transmission.
We practiced "non-contact" consultations where clients would hand their animals to us, and wait outside while we examined them and carried out necessary tests or treatments.
I researched the impact of the pandemic on veterinary teams, specifically, whether the pandemic increased the frequency and stressfulness of ethically challenging situations encountered by veterinarians, vet nurses and animal health technicians in Australia and around the world.
Ethically challenging situations are those where we have to manage competing choices or interests, and there is no easy way forward.
For example, where the government advised citizens to avoid all non-essential travel and interaction with others, was it acceptable to provide routine veterinary care?
We know that unvaccinated puppies are at high risk of contracting parvovirus, a life-threatening condition and that animals with profound dental disease suffer chronic and severe pain that we can relieve with treatment. But do trips to the vet to address these issues count as essential?
How could veterinary teams protect the community and ensure animal welfare?
In 2020, I conducted what is to date the largest global survey on ethical challenges encountered by veterinary team members.
The frequency of ethical challenges increased from several times per month to several times per week.
The most common challenge was how to proceed when clients had limited finances. No country in the world offers Medicare for animals. Many people found themselves out of work, or with reduced income, with no money to fund unexpected vet bills. Some clients with pet insurance cancelled their policies due to reduced cash flow.
Veterinary team members also reported feeling torn between their professional role (to turn up to work and care for animals) and their personal wellbeing, or the wellbeing of family members. There were genuine concerns that we may put vulnerable family members, like elderly parents, at risk through our exposure to the public.
At the same time, a global shortage of masks and hand sanitiser meant we had to reduce our caseloads to work safely. Yet because many people were taking advantage of prolonged time at home to adopt a new animal, and because people were spending more time with their pets, noticing problems they may not have otherwise, vet hospitals were busier than ever.
Despite higher workloads and fewer staff rostered on at any one time, veterinary teams did everything they could to ensure continuity of services through the pandemic.
The pandemic has taught us many lessons, including the importance of protecting the wellbeing of those who look after animals. To ensure social distancing, most clinics now work by appointment and some still utilise non-contact protocols.
Clients can support veterinary teams by ensuring they ring ahead for an appointment where possible, and book routine care in advance.
To ensure the safety of the vet team, if you are unwell for any reason, please do not attend the clinic. Have a family member or friend bring the animal in. Check in to facilitate contact tracing.
Above all, please be patient with your veterinary team.
Reference: (Quain et al., 2021) https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2021.647108/full
Dr Anne Quain BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), Dip ECAWBM (AWSEL) is a lecturer at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science and a practising veterinarian.