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Australia’s cost of living crisis is impacting everyone. But few are feeling it more than those pet owners forced to abandon their pets, and the veterinarians and animal welfare advocates dealing with the fallout. By Tracey Porter
The amount working Australians pay for everything from food and fuel, to rent and electricity has soared in recent months, forcing many to make tough decisions about their spending priorities.
No service industry is immune from the impact this cost-cutting is having, however the animal health and welfare sector has been hit particularly hard. A surge in the number of abandoned animals means animal welfare advocates around the country are struggling to care for an increasing number of relinquished pets. At the same time, less discretionary spending means that while more pets are coming into care, fewer are being adopted.
So bad is the issue in Western Australia, that the state government has doubled its funding allocation for at least two local animal rescue services, one of which was forced to spend four times its budgeted annual cost on emergency and specialist vet care as a result of surging prices forcing people to choose between feeding themselves or their pets.
Other factors at play
With the added impact of a nationwide housing crisis, namely lack of affordable housing and overly restrictive rental policies governing pet ownership, other states are not faring much better.
According to Emeritus Professor Jacquie Rand, executive director of not-for-profit animal charity Australian Pet Welfare Foundation (APWF), currently RSPCA South Australia has 1413 animals in care across the state—34 per cent more than last year. RSPCA SA stopped accepting private surrenders back in March.
Animal Welfare League NSW has an eight-month waiting list for surrendering pets and has seen an increase of about 34 per cent over the last few years of animals under AWL NSW care.
RSPCA Victoria has had a 340 per cent increase in calls about surrendering a pet over the last three years and their animal shelters are currently operating at or near capacity.
Professor Rand says the number of animals seized by or surrendered to RSPCA Victoria inspectors has risen significantly every year for the past five years, more than doubling from 1035 in 2017-18 to 2172 in 2021-22. It is predicted this will reach more than 3340 animals coming into RSPCA care via the Inspectorate by 2027.
Between 2020 and 2022, annual animal seizures/surrenders rose by 38 per cent (597 cases) at RSPCA Victoria.
The sting in the tail
But it’s not just those involved in animal rescue who are feeling the pinch.
Already experiencing a veterinary workforce crisis, the ongoing cost of living crunch has meant vets are having to learn to operate in an increasingly hostile environment.
Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) veterinary and public affairs head Dr Cristy Secombe says the veterinary profession has always managed complex and challenging client interactions, many of which often involve discussions about the capacity to pay for services, and the different payment options available including sadly “financial euthanasia”.
However, Dr Secombe says that with more clients facing financial hardship, vets are seeing more irrational speech and behaviour from clients around veterinary costs, with more abuse being directed generally towards the profession.
“Attacks from clients on social media and sensationalist media reporting has a significant negative impact on the veterinary teams who are the subject of an attack or article, as well as an impact on the wider profession,” she says.
Equally concerning is the impact financial limitations may be having on the long-term welfare of domestic animals, Dr Secombe says.
“We are seeing fewer visits to veterinary practices and an increasing number of pet owners not undertaking veterinary services due to financial limitations. This leads to animals not being brought in for their regular or annual check-ups or clients declining recommendations such as having dental procedures and blood tests performed.”
She says this is “not good” for animal welfare because these visits allow diseases to be picked up and managed earlier—a result, she says, that provides “the best outcome for both animals and owners”.
So, what can be done to ensure the best outcome for animals, owners and those professionals at the coalface?
Professor Rand says it is important to bear in mind the high socio-cost of managing stray and surrendered dogs and cats.
In Australia in 2004, the cost of managing stray and surrendered animals was estimated to be $263 million annually, comprising $83 million for municipal council pounds and $180 million for welfare shelters.
Professor Rand, whose advocacy group provides a pioneering Community Cat Program that provides free pet and stray cat desexing, microchipping and transportation to assist the most disadvantaged community members, says aside from the obvious physical and psychological benefits of keeping pets with their owners, reducing stray and pet admission to shelters will significantly reduce costs to local governments and animal welfare shelters long-term.
In addition, it will also prevent the serious psychological damage to pet owners, and to shelter and veterinary staff, associated with euthanising healthy and treatable animals.
She says a One Welfare approach to domestic animal management is urgently needed in Australia to optimise and balance the wellbeing of people and animals in their social and physical environment.
Strategies to help dog owners prevent their dogs from straying are particularly important in locations of high stray dog intake which are typically low socioeconomic areas, and funding for programs to help disadvantaged pet owners keep their pets by assisting with veterinary costs would also help, she says.
She cites Victoria’s proposed Medicare-type Veticare policy—which would provide accessible vet care to disadvantaged pet owners—as a good example of how reform could help alleviate the problem.
“This would assist many low-income families, and also help to protect veterinarians from the adverse effects on job satisfaction and mental health of working with clients who cannot afford veterinary care for their pet.”