New Zealand

Veterinary staffing shortage puts animal welfare at risk

17:58 pm on 16 December 2020

By Adam Jacobson

There are concerns veterinarians around the country are nearing breaking point as the industry faces major staffing shortages which are being compounded by border restrictions on international replacements.

The New Zealand Veterinary Association says the shortage is a problem the industry has had "forever" (file image). Photo: 123RF

A survey of practices and animal hospitals conducted by the New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA) found a shortage of 120 vets, most of them needed in permanent full time positions.

In September the government granted a mass immigration exemption for 30 vets who largely worked with farm animals, but only 19 have been approved.

Waikato After Hours Veterinary Hospital director Keith Houston told Nine to Noon immigration restrictions were complicating his two-year search for a worker who has the necessary expertise in emergency medicine.

Houston said he was "flabbergasted" after Immigration New Zealand twice turned down a suitable candidate who was based in the United Kingdom for an exemption under the critical workers category.

"We made the application because her skill set is one that we can't find in New Zealand, she is a specialised emergency veterinarian [and] has two post-graduate degrees which you can't get here," he said.

Listen to Keith Houston on Nine to Noon

Houston blamed the process for being "political and not case-by-case" and said immigration officials were "in fact just turning down everyone".

"We've had the NZVA and the industry crying out [for help], we have been going to MPs trying to get some traction on this and there is still no political buy-in."

However, NZVA chief executive Kevin Bryant said there was an understanding at the highest level of government and the association was providing briefings to politicians, but added that at an operational level there were still challenges.

"The thing is [Immigration New Zealand] is under the pump from pretty much every sector in the country for more people," Bryant said.

'Some serious issues'

Bryant said the 30 positions should be filled in the near future, with new vets being hired and applications at various stages in the system.

He did empathise with Houston's exhaustion, saying stress and exhaustion was typical across the country's vets and that chronic staffing shortages were a systemic issue which had plagued the industry for years.

"This is a problem we have had forever, we have filled the holes by bringing in people from overseas," he said.

Unless a solution was found quickly, a number of wider issues could become worse, Bryant said.

"We've got some serious issues in terms of the primary sector with critical veterinary work being at risk because of inadequate resourcing. The risks are not only to animal welfare but also to food safety, biosecurity and surveillance because our vets are the first line of defence."

With more families getting pets because of the Covid-19 lockdowns, the pressure on vets to care for these animals was also being impacted, he said.

"From the association's perspective, we are just really concerned on two fronts. It's our veterinarians' health and wellbeing ... and on the other hand it's the risk because we just don't have enough veterinarians across the country ... there is a risk that the level of care our veterinarians want to give might just not be possible because they don’t have enough hours in the day."