Vets feeling the strain due to hostile pet owners

Lockdown life has been hard for vets, and made worse by the bad behaviour of some clients, reports Bonnie Sumner.

A spike in people wanting their pets euthanised, off-lead dogs attacking other animals and daily verbal abuse from clients are all putting veterinarian staff under enormous stress during the lockdown.

Vet clinics are considered an essential service, but under Level 4 rules they can only see animals that need emergency and urgent treatment.

Despite this, many clinics are being inundated with non-urgent requests from “hysterical” clients. A Hawkes Bay vet, who didn’t want to be named, says they have been working long days since just before the lockdown and have been putting up with abusive pet owners on a daily basis.

“It’s always a high-demand, high-stress job, but we expect to have days like this far less frequently – usually once a fortnight we have a Friday the 13th kind of day. But we have been manically busy working 12-hour-plus days consistently. It’s like Friday the 13th every day.”

The vet’s clinic receives hundreds of emails and calls each day for non-emergency issues, with people frustrated they can’t get their dog’s claws trimmed, or calling in the middle of the night with concerns over a sneezing cat.

“Most clients are really understanding, but others are really quick to start getting nasty. We’re getting people shouting at us through doors, sending horrible emails and posting all over social media. But we’re just doing our best in a horrible situation. It’s deflating. We’re real human beings. I hope it’s going to ease up soon. It’s unsustainable.”

She says some clients are under financial pressure and this, coupled with the stress of the lockdown, has resulted in behaviour they wouldn’t normally see. She is pleading with people to be patient, not contact their local clinic with non-emergency concerns, and to understand they are running a business and can’t offer their services free of charge.

“It’s devastating people are losing their jobs and getting hours and salaries cut, but we’re still not a lending service. We’re also trying to sustain ourselves on a reduced income. It’s horrible to say, but I’m sorry, we don’t have a huge bank account to fund your animal. We’re trying to keep ourselves afloat.”

Antoinette Ratcliffe is a vet nurse and editor of the Vet Nurse Journal. She says vet staff are under more stress than usual, and doesn’t know “how they’re keeping it together”. Her practice has seen a surge in people bringing animals in to be euthanised, as well as pets being mauled by off-lead dogs. They had to euthanise nine pets on her first shift during lockdown and six on another, where before they would normally only put down one companion animal every two or three days.

“Our freezer was overloaded. It’s been a physically and mentally challenging industry to be working in. I imagine owners who are staying home more are seeing problems arising a lot quicker now they spend all that time with the animals. They’re potentially seeing what their pets are going through and worried for their welfare and quality of life.”

Vets are also pleading with dog owners to keep their dogs on-lead when out for a walk to avoid jeopardising people’s bubbles. In one recent example, a cat had to be put down after it was attacked by off-lead dogs, which in turn put staff and owners at risk.

“Walk your dogs on leads please, even in off-lead areas and dog parks. It keeps you safe as well, and maintains the two metre distance. Having dogs off lead jeopardises people’s bubbles,” she says.

Staff at her clinic had had to deal with the challenges of upset clients and to keep their doors locked to make sure clients wait outside. “But it’s a hard time for everyone. We have people crying in carparks because they can’t be with their pets when they’re euthanised due to the social distancing protocols.”

A raft of changes also means clinics are working at a reduced capacity, able to see half as many clients each day due to the new protocol. Owners often have to wait in their cars while a vet nurse in full protective wear collects the animal, brings it in to be assessed and returns them up to an hour later with phone consultations between the vet and client throughout. Everything has to be arranged in advance, making the whole process take a lot longer, often with fewer staff.

Oliver Reeve owns a vet clinic on Auckland’s North Shore and says they have split their staff into two teams working half a week each so there is no chance of transmission between them.

Oliver Reeve. Photo: Supplied

“We have half the number of staff on each day but we’re still quite busy. We are working really hard to do fairly normal stuff. There’s a lot of pressure in terms of getting things done and our workload. Our nurses are knackered.

“They’re only doing half the week because of the split team, but it doesn’t change how tiring it is when you’re doing it and trying to maintain the hygiene, the protective equipment, the social distancing. From a business owner’s point of view, it’s also very stressful thinking ‘how much is revenue going to go down?’”

NZ Veterinary Association chief veterinary officer Dr Helen Beattie says anxiety about animal transmission of Covid-19 has added another layer of complexity and stress when there is very limited evidence pets can be a source of infection.

“As far as stressors go, the vet profession, like the rest of New Zealand, is currently under an enormous amount of pressure. For us there is that added element of clients and their anxieties around the pet’s health. There is a lot of chatter about Covid-19 and animals and whether or not we should be concerned about transmission between cats and dogs and humans and this has added stress and concern. At this point there is no evidence of transmission from pets to humans, and this is just adding another layer of anxiety to owners who are reaching out to vet staff. So it’s challenging for everybody.”

For trustworthy information about pets and Covid-19, visit

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners