Antoinette Lattouf

10 daily senior reporter

Sat 19 Jan 2019 10.06 AM

Australians have among the highest pet ownership rates in the world. But when it comes to medical care for furry friends — the industry is in turmoil.

Jennifer Hunt forked out tens of thousands on vet bills to keep her pet dog Jed alive.

“I got asked by the vet if I would put him down as it’s expensive surgery and many pet owners can’t come up with the money.

“But then I thought, Jed is part of the family you wouldn’t put a family member down,” she told 10 daily.

Hunt ended up paying a total of $30,000 for various spinal treatments for her border collie.

Wolfie ate two nails and a length of cloth and the fund raised $6,000 to cover vet fees to enable three abdominal surgeries to save him. IMAGE: Supplied

While she managed to come up with the funds, she soon came across countless heart-wrenching stories of Aussies who couldn’t afford to keep their pets alive.

“For example pensioners whose pets are companions and bring them so much love and joy.

“Or families where a loved one is autistic, disabled or stressed, there’s a lot of evidence of how much a pet improves their outcomes,” Hunt said.

Owning A Pet Hits The Hip Pocket Hard

The Melbourne-based nurse decided to start a crowdfunding charity to help families save their pets.

Eight years later, the Pet Medical Crisis Fund (PMCF) has raised and distributed almost $400, 000 to save more than 450 pets across Victoria.

“Many of the people we’ve helped are single mothers with sick or disabled children as well as pensioners,” Hunt said.

Australian pet owners are forking out a $1.3 billion annually on the vet, according to recent research by comparison website Finder.

Hunt said she is working to take her service national and she knows it will “open a floodgate of need.”

The PMCF also covers the cost of some vets who agree to do procedures where an owner can’t pay.

The Human Cost Of Treating Pets

But it’s not just pet owners paying a high price.

Dr Oliver Liyou has been a vet in regional NSW for 25 years. He says he’s struggled to stay in the industry — where staff shortages, mental illness and clients who can’t afford to pay for treatment — is rife.

Oliver Liyou now works fewer hours in order to manage his stress and anxiety.  IMAGE: supplied

“The general public thinks all vets are rich and that’s just a misconception,” he told 10 daily.

Liyou estimates that around 50 percent of Australians can’t afford reasonable medical care for their pets, yet many clients he encounters own multiple animals.

“Many vets are walking away rather than being prepared to put their mental health at risk doing such long hours, managing financial stress and dealing with client expectations,” he said.

According to the Australian Veterinarian Association, suicide among vets reached “near epidemic” levels in 2013.

“I’ve had five vet friends commit suicide, and a few years ago I was lucky to survive a suicide attempt, I ended up in a coma and ICU,” Liyou said.

Liyou says access to information and misinformation online compounds the problem.

“I have seen attitudes change in the last five to 10 years. Clients often have distorted views and expectations not only of costs but how to treat things based on what Dr Google says,” he said.

How Vets Are Fighting To Keep Animals And Themselves Alive

“People often say ‘treating my dog is more expensive than my medical costs’ but they don’t see all the costs of caring for humans”, Dr Paula Parker, President of Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) said.

Parker says most local vets are equipped like small hospitals, and the huge medical equipment costs are absorbed by small business owners.

“We do not get state and federal government funding, Medicare and PBS,” she said.

IMAGE: Getty Images

According to Australia’s largest veterinary employment website, Kookaburra Veterinary Employment, there are currently 430 vet roles that haven’t been filled.

“We are seeing shortages, largely in rural areas and also where more specialists skill sets are required,” Parker said.

In response to dwindling vet numbers, isolation and stress, the AVA has introduced a 24-hour counselling hotline, a mentoring program as well as a benevolent fund to support vets in need.

READ MORE: ‘Broken-Hearted’ Vet Begs Pet Owners To Stay With Them When They Die 

READ MORE: Legend Vet Dresses As Giant Mouse To Examine Nervous Dog

The AVA recommends pet owners have two plans in place to manage the health of their animals.

“One is a preventative health care plan that includes vaccinations, six monthly blood and dental tests, heartworm protection and good diet and exercise.

“When things go wrong people need access to either pet insurance or funds put aside perhaps in a separate bank account for a rainy day for their pet,” Parker said.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. The Veterinarian 24 Hour Counselling Hotline details can be found here. 

For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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