Bristol vet talks about 'lockdown syndrome' in pets (2022)

A Bristol vet has opened up about the pressures on veterinary practices and pets which were purchased or adopted during lockdown. Sara Jackson RVN is the head nurse at Vets4Pets in Bristol Longwell Green and has shared the concerns facing many in the veterinary world, regarding the behavioural and health complications that have gone with bringing a pet into the family during a time of isolation.

She also believes that the veterinary industry itself is facing increasing pressure, with staff and practices finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with the demand for appointments and operations. She believes this is due to staff shortages, caused by both Brexit and staff changing careers due to "the increased stress and abuse we suffer on a daily basis", as well as the vast amount of new pets in households since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In fact, it is estimated that some 3.2 million UK households acquired a pet since the start of the pandemic and Sara says that, in short, there are simply not enough vets and nurses in the industry to cope with the amount of pets that we now have in the UK. Sara adds: "More than six in ten vets in small animal practices have reported feeling intimidated by clients using abusive language or behaviour over the past year, which is not acceptable in any means.

Read more: Bristol Animal Rescue Centre issue 'urgent' appeal for public support

"We work long hours, sometimes with no break and are even sometimes unable to use the bathroom during an entire 11-hour shift. We are faced with very upsetting and challenging cases/patients and we are now met with aggression and abuse if we are unable to fit pets in for routine appointments the same day."

Lockdown syndrome - what it is and the problems it can have on our pets

Another real area of concern for vets and veterinary nurses like Sara, is 'lockdown syndrome' - something which Sara says can be identified clearly between those pets who were acquired in more social times and those who became part of the family during lockdown. Sara tells Bristol Live: "Unfortunately due to the fact that most of these pets were born and raised during the lockdown, many now have behavioural issues due to the lack of socialisation.

"We see many dogs around the ages of 1-3 years that are riddled with anxiety in social situations. They are afraid of new people as they were unable to mix with anyone other than the people in their house.

Bristol vet talks about 'lockdown syndrome' in pets (1)

"These people raised them, fed them and were with them 24 hours a day during lockdown, so to go out into the outside world is very frightening for them. They also have had no socialisation with other dogs, as we were unable to meet with friends for dog walks or even allow them to sniff each other in the park.

"This in turn has caused many dogs to become reactive to other dogs. There is a clear difference between puppies that were born during lockdown and I call them “Lockdown Puppies” or as having “lock down syndrome” and although life returns to normal for us, for them lockdown was the normality."

Lockdown meant pets are now even more scared to come to the vets

The concerns around the anxiety and behavioural issues in our pets has now increased tenfold because of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns and because of this, vets are raising the fact that even more pets are scared to visit a veterinary practice - and those that were even the slightest bit anxious towards a trip to the vets have now become even more reluctant or worried to go. Sara says that this isn't the fault of pets or their owners necessarily, but rather another product of lockdown life and the aftermath.

She says: "As practices needed to remain open for the entire lockdown, we had to make changes to ensure the safety of our staff and clients. We were dealing with a situation that we had never encountered before and we had no idea what this virus was that was sweeping the world.

"However just because of this, it didn’t mean that pets stopped getting sick. We continued to try and treat as many patients as we could with precautions in place.

"Staff had to wear full protective clothing and equipment, including masks, visors, aprons and gloves. We had to ask the owners to pass the pets over to us and wait in the car park while we examined them and took histories from owners over the phone.

"This was scary for the pets but we had no choice, as we needed to try and protect everybody and, if we became sick and the entire practice was unable to work, who would look after the hundreds of patients we help on a daily basis?"

One key part of making a pet's visit to the vet as comfortable and stress-free as possible, is for the vets to use facial expressions and rewarding speech to ensure them that the practice isn't a scary place to be, but rather a positive experience and a place where they are looked after, given plenty of cuddles and a space they can feel safe and protected. However, due to the PPE vets had to wear during the pandemic, Sara says, this wasn't an easy thing to do.

"We try and make veterinary visits as stress free as possible and a big part of this is facial expressions, especially in dogs," she says. "Due to the masks, the pets were only able to see our eyes.

"We had to ensure we had the biggest smiles under our masks and pray that they could see our smiles through our eyes and feel some kind of comfort that they could trust us and they were safe."

Increase in health conditions and full capacity rehoming centres

On top of all of the hurdles mentioned above, vets are reporting that they have seen an increase in health conditions in many pets, something they believe is down to a number of factors, including:

  • General overbreeding to keep up with demand
  • Owners being less likely to seek out a breeder that has performed health testing on their breeding dog(s)
  • Owners more likely to pay a deposit without seeing the puppy - and pay more than £2,000. There was an increase from the average prices of £955 in 2019 to £1,550 in 2020
  • Owners more likely to be first-time pet owners
  • Owners less likely to view their puppy in person prior to purchase and more likely to see their puppy without their littermates
  • Owners more likely to have collected their puppy from outside a breeders' property or have it delivered, which means puppy farming became a lot easier to cover up
  • Breeders allowing owners to buy a younger puppy, in comparison to the recommended guidance of over eight weeks

Due to the behavioural, social and health issues that owners are now facing due to 'lockdown syndrome' in their pets, many are choosing to re-home or surrender them to charities and rescue centres which are also now at full capacity. Sara says: "Lockdown has been hard on everybody and the consequences are still being felt in so many ways.

"I hope that the veterinary industry can start to grow at a rate that is needed to cope with all of the extra pets that we have in the UK, with all of the extra anxieties and health conditions they now face."

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