Exhausted and abused, Belgium’s vets want a break

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Margaux Demoulin, a 26-year-old veterinarian, is fed up.

She’s been in the job for only two years — after training for six — and she’s already been thinking of quitting.

Her dream job is turning into a nightmare. With overbearing pet owners, death threats on social media, work overload and little pay, Belgium’s vets say they’re experiencing burnouts and high suicide rates.

They are telling the government that if current conditions don’t change, vets will continue 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 vets to do the health checks that certify disease-free meat could endanger the food industry, too.

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“If we keep getting spat on, one day there will be no more veterinarians,” Demoulin said.  

Last week, the Belgian Professional Veterinary Union (UPV) published a survey on the sector’s mental health and professional expectations. The study, carried on 530 French-speaking Belgian veterinarians, found that 30 percent work more than 50 hours a week. About 80 percent of vets felt they had no confidence in the future.

A 2019 study found that one in three Flemish vets suffer from burnout.

The profession “is not doing well because we have a lot of aggressions, we have a suicide rate that is four times higher than the national average,” said Fabienne Marchand, a veterinarian and vice president of the UPV. “In the past, we could say that we had a plethora of vets, now we have a shortage,” she added. At least a quarter of new vets quit their jobs within three years of starting, according the UPV survey.

The government has promised to step in. The federal government pushed through an 8 percent raise for vets in December, and is putting together an agency tasked with monitoring vets’ working conditions and well-being. The agency, which will include Belgian authorities and veterinary corporations, will be set up in the coming weeks, according to a spokesperson from the federal agricultural ministry.

Too few and badly paid

Marchand welcomed the pledge, but warned that vets will likely vote with their feet if things don’t improve.

The pandemic overloaded vets who already had full agendas, as more people got pets | James A. Gekiere/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images

“If things do not change, there will not be enough veterinarians to provide care,” she said. “When there is a break in the continuity of care, there is also a danger and health risks because the people in charge of slaughterhouses and controls are too few and are not sufficiently paid,” she said.

The pandemic overloaded vets who already had full agendas, as more people got pets.

Similar problems elsewhere highlight how bad things can get for vets. In France, a June study showed that almost 5 percent of veterinarians attempted to commit suicide, which is three to four times more than the average population. In Canada, a shortage of vets left hundreds of cows, lambs and pigs crammed in slaughterhouses for days, unable to go through appropriate sanitary checks.

Marchand lamented how different the job is from what young students imagine it to be. “We have a lot of young people who enter the profession because they love animals, but they have no idea what the practice is [like].”

This was echoed by Demoulin who said that she was stunned by the workload she had to put up with, and the fraught relationships with customers, who call at any time of the day and night, regardless of whether she’s on call. Marchand said that many times customers are unwilling to pay for the services, accusing her of not having “the heart” to care for an animal for free. And that’s beside the stress of putting down animals regularly.

“People don’t realize that even psychologically and mentally, we are not the saviors of the planet,” Demoulin said.

While older vets might accept such conditions, 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, and not just be a vet.”

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