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Margaux Demoulin, 26-year-old veterinarian, is fed up.
She’s only been in the job for two years – after six years of training – and she’s already considering quitting.
His dream job turns into a nightmare. With overbearing pet owners, death threats on social media, overwork and low pay, Belgian vets say they are experiencing burnout and high suicide rates.
They tell the government that if current conditions don’t change, vets will keep quitting and there won’t be new ones to replace them. The impact is likely to be felt beyond frustrated pet owners. Any shortage of veterinarians to carry out the health checks that certify meat as disease-free could also put the food industry at risk.
“If we continue to be spat on, one day there will be no more vets,” said Demoulin.
Last week, the Belgian Veterinary Professional Union (UPV) published a survey on mental health and professional expectations in the sector. The study, conducted among 530 French-speaking Belgian veterinarians, revealed that 30% of them work more than 50 hours per week. About 80% of vets felt they had no confidence in the future.
A 2019 study found that one in three Flemish veterinarians suffer from burnout.
The profession “is not doing well because we have a lot of attacks, we have a suicide rate which is four times higher than the national average”, declared Fabienne Marchand, veterinarian and vice-president of the UPV. “In the past we could say we had a plethora of vets, now we have a shortage,” she added. At least a quarter of new vets left their jobs within three years of joining, according to the UPV survey.
The government promised to intervene. The federal government imposed an 8% raise for vets in December and is setting up an agency to monitor the working conditions and welfare of vets. The agency, which will include Belgian authorities and veterinary corporations, will be set up in the coming weeks, according to a spokesman for the federal agriculture ministry.
Too few and poorly paid
Marchand welcomed the pledge, but warned that vets will likely vote with their feet if things don’t improve.
“If things don’t change, there won’t be enough vets to provide care,” she said. “When there is a break in the continuity of care, there is also danger and health risks because those responsible for slaughterhouses and controls are too few and are not paid enough,” she said.
The pandemic has overburdened veterinarians who already had busy schedules as more and more people have pets.
Similar issues elsewhere show just how bad things can get for vets. In France, a June study showed that almost 5% of veterinarians have attempted suicide, three to four times more than the average population. In Canada, a shortage of veterinarians has left hundreds of cows, lambs and pigs crammed into slaughterhouses for days, unable to pass proper health checks.
Marchand lamented how different the work is from what young students imagine it to be. “We have a lot of young people who come into the profession because they love animals, but they have no idea what the practice is. [like].”
This was echoed by Demoulin who said she was stunned by the workload she had to endure and the strained relationships with clients, who call at all hours of the day and night whether or not she is on guard. Marchand said clients are often unwilling to pay for services, accusing him of not having the “heart” to care for an animal for free. And that’s next to the stress of regularly slaughtering animals.
“People don’t realize that even psychologically and mentally, we’re not the saviors of the planet,” Demoulin said.
While older veterans may agree to such terms, younger ones do not, Demoulin said. “It’s not just a calling and a passion. It’s a job. I think most young people […] aspire to have a personal life, not just be a veterinarian.”
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