Unpaid veterinary services performed for public good
Ratification Date: 20 Jul 2023
Private veterinary practitioners within Australia make a significant contribution to areas of public good from which society derives benefits, often on an unpaid basis. Veterinary services performed for public good should be recognised by governments at all levels, and appropriately compensated.
Types of unpaid work provided by veterinarians.
Australian Veterinarians provide millions of dollars of unpaid, inadequately compensated and discounted work every year as a contribution to public good. Types of unpaid work include activities in animal welfare, animal management, wildlife care, emergency responses, biosecurity, disease surveillance and control, and public health. They can broadly be divided into two categories:
- Unpaid community volunteer work undertaken on a genuinely voluntary basis (for example, provision of volunteer veterinary services within organisations such as Pets in the Park and Vets Beyond Borders, education of community groups about animal diseases, biosecurity, and assisting local councils with animal management); and
- Obligatory unpaid work that is necessary to meet veterinarians’ legal, professional and ethical obligations.
This policy is concerned with the latter type of work, including, but not limited to, work with stray, unowned and feral animals, wildlife work and emergency treatment, passive disease surveillance, reporting responsibilities, and biosecurity and public health responses. Frequently this work is uncompensated or inadequately compensated. In 1999 the dollar value of unpaid veterinary services was approximated at $34 million.1 A comprehensive survey of Australian veterinarians is currently being undertaken and will more accurately quantify this amount.
Veterinarians have legal, professional and ethical obligations to provide relief of pain and suffering to animals that are presented to them in most jurisdictions of Australia (NSW, ACT, VIC, SA, TAS, NT and WA). There is also a public expectation that veterinarians will provide care for wildlife, assist with stray animals and participate in management of pest or nuisance animals. Historically, governments have not funded or provided these services, and this gap in public provision means that private practices instead have had to absorb these costs.
It is a reasonable expectation that veterinarians are compensated for the provision of these services.
The value to society of unpaid work by veterinarians
The value of unpaid work performed by veterinarians includes direct welfare benefits to animals, as well as benefits to concerned community members in knowing the standards have been met. In addition to these direct benefits, there is a flow-on contribution to public good, in maintaining Australia’s favourable international reputation for good animal welfare, biosecurity and ‘clean’ Agricultural produce.
Veterinary practices provide considerable support to pet owners and local communities in their management of stray, unowned and feral animals.
The activities performed by veterinarians in emergency response and disaster relief provide benefits to the public beyond the welfare of livestock and companion animals.
Wildlife disease surveillance is increasingly recognised as essential, as many of the emerging infectious diseases of public health significance originate in wildlife.2 In many cases private veterinary practitioners provide the initial assessment of sick and injured wildlife, and as such, play an important societal role in disease surveillance and One Health.
Risks due to lack of funding of public good services
The consequences of these veterinary services not being appropriately funded are many. There is a risk to the community if these services, through lack of resources, cannot be performed by veterinarians or are instead performed by lay providers, without the standards and accountability required of veterinary registration.
There is the financial burden on individual veterinarians and organisations of providing these public good services in terms of:
- Lack of remuneration for veterinarians and support staff (sometimes after hours) performing services for public good;
- Opportunity cost: where staff members are performing duties for public good and are unable to perform the core duties required to service private veterinary practices and private animals;
- Inability to recover costs of drugs, consumables, and overheads for services provided that deliver public good;
- Cost of education, training, and facilities to provide the required services for public good.
In addition, such work can expose veterinarians to liability or reputational risk (for example, where there is disagreement with the veterinarian’s assessment that an animal should be humanely destroyed or euthanased).
Provision of unfunded public good services by the vet profession also has a range of equity and distributional consequences for them as well as their clientele, impacting overall prices for private clients in order for practices to remain financially viable.
Additional unscheduled work also impacts negatively on workplace conditions in many already stretched veterinary workplaces when there is no provision for support. Increased workload and long and irregular hours have been identified as key stressors impacting mental health in veterinary workplaces. 3
There are also significant workplace health and safety risks for veterinary staff, particularly those involved in disaster management, wildlife, and the management of feral cats, if there are insufficient resources to support appropriate facilities to service these areas of public good.
There are animal welfare consequences to this work being inadequately funded. When additional patients are presented to practices that are already fully booked, potentially struggling with workload and without consideration for the resources required, it is inevitable that there will be some compromise. This is likely to impact animal welfare. A 2016 survey of Australian veterinarians found that only 20% of wildlife was treated immediately on presentation, due to lack of time.4 This impacts on the standards able to be provided and risks reputational damage to the veterinary profession itself.
- Where there are obligations for veterinarians to provide services for public good, there should be mechanisms to enable veterinarians to be compensated: this includes recovering all costs as well as equitable remuneration for their time inputs;
- Governments and/or animal welfare organisations are encouraged to enter into clear service provision arrangements with veterinarians regarding the provision of identified services;
- Animal welfare legislation places a duty of care (and thus financial responsibility) on animal owners to provide for their care; this should also extend to animals for which government is responsible (ie wildlife, stray, and feral animals);
- Enhanced uptake of pet and other animal insurances is encouraged to provide security of payment to veterinarians for responsibilities that are private in nature but also contribute to public good.
Other relevant policies and position statements
- Engagement of private veterinary practitioners in national disease surveillance
- Great veterinary workplaces
This policy clarifies the nature of unpaid services provided by veterinarians which benefit the Australian community and are properly the responsibility of government. It is appropriate for veterinarians to provide essential veterinary services in accordance with their professional and legislative obligations and be equitably compensated for these services.
- Members donate $34m! AVA/s 1999 Animal Welfare Survey results - $7600 per head. Australian Veterinary Journal, 2000, 78: 361-361.
- Woods R, Reiss A, Cox-Witton K, Grillo T, Peters A. The importance of wildlife disease monitoring as part of global surveillance for zoonotic diseases: the role of Australia. Tropic. Med. Infect. Dis. 2019;4(1):29.
- Moir FM, Van den Brink ARK. Current insights in veterinarians’ psychological wellbeing. NZ Vet J. 2020;68(1):3-12. doi:10.1080/00480169.2019.1669504.
- Orr B, Tribe A. Animal welfare implications of treating wildlife in Australian veterinary practices. Australian Veterinary Journal. 2018 Dec 1;96(12):475.