‘We had to call the police when one man kicked a wall’: my life as a vet’s nurse in badly behaved Britain

I trained as a veterinary nurse after university because I love animals, but I also enjoy the scientific aspect. One of the first and most important things I learned is that it’s much more than treating sick pets. You are also dealing with the emotions of owners, which can be really challenging.

One of the problems we are facing in veterinary practice is overwhelm. During lockdown, many people got new pets without preparing for the consequences. As well as poorly socialised dogs, we have seen a rise in the popularity of designer breeds, such as French bulldogs, dachshunds and pugs, that are more prone to health problems than others. At the same time, we have seen a reduction in the number of staff in veterinary clinics across the UK. This is partly due to the loss of European staff since Brexit and partly due to the lack of childcare options. In recent years, our industry has become heavily dominated by women, but many are leaving or being forced to go part-time after having families.

With more pets in the system, there are angry outbursts when it isn’t possible to see one at the practice. Recently, a man became violent when we recommended that his dog be transferred to a different clinic, as we couldn’t accommodate him. He kicked off about the bill and started threatening legal action. Eventually, he got so frustrated that he kicked a wall and we had to call the police. I couldn’t believe he lost his temper like that so publicly.

Since the pandemic, we have also seen a big rise in the number of anxious pet owners. Increased levels of worry often come with irrational behaviour and make people more demanding. We have one client who is very anxious about her animals and always expects instant care and attention. Recently, I made a small mistake on her pet’s prescription. It wouldn’t have caused the pet any harm, but she was furious – she told my manager I was completely incompetent and that she never wanted me to deal with her pet again. Eventually, she calmed down and apologised, but that is not always the case.

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For some people, money is a real issue. We are regularly told that we are trying to rip people off. In the UK, the NHS is free at the point of care, so I don’t think people understand how much healthcare can cost. During the pandemic, I was working for an RSPCA clinic, where people go when they can’t afford private care. I always tried to offer people advice about how best to manage their pets, but not everyone wants to listen. I repeatedly saw people with multiple animals buying even more, despite not being able to afford to care for the ones they had. Some people see animal ownership as their right, rather than a luxury.

As a result of worrying about costs, some owners delay calling us when their pet becomes unwell. This causes increased anxiety and sometimes makes them more likely to lash out. One woman called us at 4pm on a Friday afternoon about her pet, which had been sick all week. I established it wasn’t an emergency and told her she would have to come back the next day, because we were fully booked. She became verbally abusive and demanded an appointment.

I have been doing this job for a long time, so I try to take the bad behaviour in my stride, but some of the other staff find it really upsetting. It is hurtful to be told we don’t care or that we’re “in it for the money”. It’s a compassionate career and I have only ever wanted to help pets and their owners.