World Veterinary Day, which took place on 30 April, is a day about celebrating the crucial work veterinarians do in supporting animal health, animal welfare, people, and the environment.

The theme for World Veterinary Day this year was ‘Strengthening Veterinary Resilience’ – a timely reminder of the unprecedented strain the veterinary industry has felt over the past two years, and the extraordinary role the sector played in the pandemic response.

According to research conducted by Animal Medicines Australia, the pandemic saw pet ownership numbers increase by nearly 20 per cent. The veterinary profession also had to quickly pivot to provide contactless consultations and telehealth services. On top of the many challenges associated with the pandemic, the profession also faced bushfires and floods.

Further to this, research into veterinary mental health showed that 66.6 per cent of respondents said they either have experienced or currently are experiencing a mental health condition, five per cent higher than the national average.

Throughout all this, veterinarians have continued to keep the animals of this country safe.

Pet Industry News wants to hero the visibility and inspiration of World Veterinary Day, so we’re launching a series of profiles on vets from around the country, in the hope that we can raise awareness for the challenges they face and pass on advice to the next generation of veterinarians.

This week we speak to Dr Tanya Stephens, a small animal practitioner who runs her own practice in Haberfield, Sydney, and who is also a wildlife researcher with original research on galactosaemia in kangaroos.

Dr Stephens is an active member of the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), an honorary veterinarian for the Children’s Medical Research Foundation, and holds leadership positions on the NSW Kangaroo Management Advisory Panel, NSW Greyhound Welfare Integrity Commission Animal Welfare Committee, and the AVA Animal Welfare Trust.

PIN: What do you love about what you do?

Dr Stephens: I can honestly say I love just about everything I do (although maybe not dealing with flyblown rabbits or expressing anal glands!) No two days are alike, which makes the job so interesting. I enjoy being a general practitioner as I feel what I do is really worthwhile, not just because it means problem solving and helping animals, but because pet owners are so appreciative and the social work aspects of veterinary practice are so rewarding.

I certainly obtain a great deal of satisfaction from other activities outside of practice and I’m a great believer in actively engaging with others to improve animal welfare.

PIN: What have been the highlights of your career so far?

Dr Stephens: There have been many highlights. I was very fortunate when I graduated to be able to work in small animal practice as well as undertaking research. I am forever grateful to the Children’s Medical Research Foundation (now Institute) that gave me a research grant to test my hypothesis that kangaroos are galactosaemic. This led to a paper in Nature and changed the way orphan joeys are fed. I also researched the health and welfare of kangaroos in captivity, and I am still involved with kangaroo management.

Another defining moment was the decision to open my own small animal practice with a new baby in tow. At a time when there were few part-time options for female graduates this enabled me to work and raise a family. I really enjoyed working with wildlife but there were few career options and I decided I could continue my interest and involvement in research and wildlife whilst in practice.

I’ve enjoyed undertaking further study and travelling to Edinburgh for my Masters graduation was a wonderful experience as was being made a Fellow of The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. I was particularly pleased to be asked to edit a new book One Welfare: The Role of The Veterinarian which showcases the essential role of veterinarians worldwide.

PIN: What kind of places has your career taken you and what kinds of roles have led you to where you are now?

Dr Stephens: Roles in research, practice, presenting and publication as well as committee work have enabled me to take my career beyond a single endeavour and to all kinds of places which I had never dreamed of as a new graduate. I’ve been able to be involved in code writing, oversee research, the law relating to veterinarians and committees where veterinary input is essential.

PIN: What’s next for you – any goals or plans that you hope to achieve over the next 12 months?

Dr Stephens: I have no grand plans for the next year. I’ll see what the family’s plans are around help with grandchildren and any travel and organise myself around that. I’ll continue with my committee work and aim to publish a paper on updated research on galactosaemia in joeys. I’m lined up to give a couple of presentations this year and will keep working on some new articles.

PIN: What are some of the biggest challenges facing the pet industry and how can the industry work to overcome those?

Dr Stephens: The pet industry seems to be doing very well! From what I understand there is an abundance of new pets because of Covid, and pet owners are spending vast amounts on their pets. My practice is seeing oodles of new ‘oodles’!

The veterinary profession is another matter, with the biggest challenge a shortage of veterinarians. Whilst pet owners are spending up big on their pets with fancy foods and gold studded collars, there appears to be a perception that veterinarians are expensive, and that is true to a certain extent with veterinary costs rising.

This may have impacts on animal welfare if there is a corresponding fall in visits to the veterinarian, and costs are the main cause of abuse of veterinarians often affecting their mental health. The public needs to understand the costs of running a practice and practitioners need to focus on accountability and transparency to maintain trust and a social contract with the public.

Unfortunately trust in veterinarians has fallen which is a concern as the profession needs that trust if it is to remain the primary source of information on animal health and welfare.

Perceived or real over diagnosis and over servicing are emerging concerns in practice especially with the use of advanced technologies. I believe that it is important that veterinarians practise evidence-based medicine, not only to maintain trust, but also to ensure best health and welfare outcomes for animals. Surveys show that the public wants accountability and transparency. I also believe that the profession needs to address the problem of affordable veterinary services for low-income earners.

PIN: Do you have any thoughts on how we can work to overcome the national vet shortage in Australia?

Dr Stephens: The veterinary profession has much to do to overcome this challenge. Importantly, veterinarians need to be valued by society, which is why falling trust is an issue, then they need to be appropriately remunerated. Being a veterinarian should be seen as a vocation and not just a job.

It needs to be better emphasised that a veterinary degree can take you anywhere and it’s a wonderful rewarding career. All veterinarians play a role here by promoting the positive aspects of the role and practice owners need to look after their employees. 

Greater uptake of pet insurance may help but insurances have to be good value and we need to ensure that insurance doesn’t lead to any over servicing. Government definitely has a role in supporting veterinarians and having spent the money on educating them needs to do more to keep them in their jobs.

The AVA plays an important role, and all veterinarians should join their professional organisation as a strong organisation is able to provide support to veterinarians and lobby for government input.

PIN: What advice would you offer to an aspiring veterinarian?

Dr Stephens: The advice I would offer to an aspiring veterinarian is embrace the role, remember that although you may want to be a veterinarian because you love animals, you need to like people as well. It really is an interesting challenging and rewarding job with never a dull moment. It brings with it great satisfaction, enormous amounts of appreciation and such a variety of roles from research to Government to charities and sometimes you can do all these at once. Not many other jobs allow you to do this.

PIN: How will you be celebrating World Veterinary Day?

Dr Stephens: I’m not working at the practice on World Veterinary Day so I’m not sure what I’ll do. Maybe a nice dinner and a bottle of good red with the family.

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