SINGAPORE - After spending five years as a veterinary nurse, Ms Adrielle Heng decided to leave in March this year.
The reason: demanding work schedules, pressure from pet owners and working overtime almost every day, among others.
The 30-year-old said she also had to skip lunch on most days.
"It is a norm in this profession to work on an empty stomach and without toilet breaks to meet the daily demands. With a shortage of staff, we can go home on time just once in a while."
Long working hours, fatigue and lack of career progression are among the many reasons why more professionals are facing burnout and choosing to leave, say those in the industry.
Early last year, the Animal & Veterinary Service (AVS) and Singapore Veterinary Association (SVA) conducted a survey to examine the key trends and challenges faced by local veterinary professionals.
The survey, which drew about 400 responses, revealed that some of the challenges faced by vets and support staff are increased demand for such services, client expectations, work-life balance, and physical and mental well-being.
SVA vice-president Cathy Chan said that over the last two years, more Singaporeans have adopted pets, but there has not been a corresponding increase in the number of veterinary staff.
AVS, a cluster of the National Parks Board, observed a 15 per cent increase in the number of dog licences issued, from about 70,000 in 2019 to some 81,000 last year.
In a Facebook post on April 23, SVA estimated that there are 298,000 dogs, cats and small mammals, and 474 licensed vets in Singapore.
Among the licensed vets, 70 per cent are working in private clinics, while the remaining are overseas, or working in government agencies such as AVS and Singapore Food Agency, laboratories or doing non-clinical work in Singapore.
This means there is just one vet to at least 898 pets.
The shortage of vet paraprofessionals such as nurses and technicians has also contributed to the manpower strain.
Dr Chan said: "There is a labour crunch due to the loss of skilled foreign workers. It has been difficult to replace support staff."
She added that many veterinary professionals are educated overseas, with 50 per cent or less returning to Singapore after their graduation.
Furthermore, on-the-job training is not easy and for newcomers, there is often a huge difference between perception and reality.
Comparing the situation to Singapore's healthcare system, principal veterinarian Brian Loon said: "Even with several human nursing educational institutions producing local graduates yearly, there is nonetheless a requirement to source for more human healthcare nurses overseas to meet demand."
He added: "In contrast, there are only one to two polytechnics with a small number of veterinary technician graduates yearly, and a vast majority of these graduates do not stay in the industry after graduation."
SVA president Chow Haoting said the lack of career progression is another reason why people leave the industry.
He said: "Vet clinics are brick-and-mortar small businesses. There are usually only two to three layers of hierarchy, making it very different from corporate organisations or start-ups.
"The financial reward is low when career progression is low. People stay due to their passion and love for animals, but passion can only keep them here for so long until pet owners chase them away."
Dr Eric Yeoh, head veterinary surgeon of a clinic, believes raising the image and understanding of what vets do and struggle with will be a boost.
He said: "We love the work, but it's taking a big toll… Improving public perception and understanding of what vets do and the training they undergo will have a more immediate impact, so that vets do not experience burnout. (We) cannot afford to lose more vets."
Besides the survey, AVS also held focus group discussions in the second half of last year with members of the industry and users of vet services, to gather views on advancing standards of the sector, said Dr Chang Siow Foong.
Dr Chang, group director of professional and scientific services at AVS, added that stakeholders have acknowledged the critical role of vet paraprofessionals and discussed the need to look into better defining the scope of veterinary activities.
Dr Chow said that by licensing vet nurses, regulatory guidelines can be added to promote lifelong learning and, subsequently, career progression.
Ms Heng, who is now in another industry but works as a part-time vet nurse on weekends or when there is an emergency, said: "I think the initiatives that AVS and SVA are looking at should help with retaining vet nurses to a certain degree, or at least let them have something to ponder about when they want to leave the industry."
Dr Loon acknowledged that it has been tougher to manage expectations from pet owners and staff since the pandemic, but vets have learnt to cope with the challenges and are thankful to pet owners who have been understanding and accommodating.
He said: "While there are many similarities between the clinical nature of human and pet healthcare, there are also subtle differences. Thus, pet owners should not assume that the same medical conditions in humans and pets must be managed in the same way.
"Open communication, mutual respect and understanding between pet owners and the veterinary team are crucial in ensuring optimal outcomes for their beloved pets."