Vet shortage in France as young graduates quit for work-life balance

High suicide rates, overwork and veterinary ‘deserts’ are a concern - recent government action is welcomed but too late says the profession

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More and more areas in France are short of vets.

Staff are quitting through overwork, are unevenly spread across the country, and are not willing to accept the same conditions as previous generations.

Despite an increasing number of listed vets – 20,197 in 2021, according to professional body Ordre national des vétérinaires (ONV) – parts of Ile-de-France, Centre-Val de Loire, Creuse, Corrèze and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes are understaffed.

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Rural vet numbers are falling

Livestock veterinarians in rural areas, in particular, dwindled from 6,900 to 6,500 between 2016 and 2020.

While the government and vet schools have been activating financial and professional levers to arrest the downward fall, their effects are yet to be seen.

Laurent Perrin is a livestock and dog vet in Valençay (Indre) and president of SNVEL, which represents the interests of vets.

He said: “This is a job of passion, which means it requires extensive working hours, on-call duties, failure, administrative paperwork, discussions with the clientele.”

Dr Perrin told The Connexion that he covered 250 kilometres, – roughly four hours of driving – on September 12, for example, while visiting four clients.

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40% graduates quit before five years in the job

The industry faces a double-edged sword, with retirees leaving empty positions, coupled with younger vets leaving earlier than expected for greater balance between their professional and private lives, he said.

While the average vet earns €79,779, according to the ONV, wages seem insufficient to persuade newcomers to pursue their careers, as 40% of early graduates quit before attaining five years of experience.

“To have a 40-year career in the same industry and company like mine is probably not going to happen a lot in the future,” Dr Perrin said.

The problem was masked for many years

Corinne Velleine, a former vet for 20 years in Ahun (Creuse) who was forced to leave the field three years ago after an accident, said: “The profession has kept its head in the sand.”

Understaffing has been an issue ever since Dr Velleine graduated in 2005, but the industry was slow to spot the problem as its severity was masked by Belgian vets filling in positions, she said.

The phenomenon was also fuelled by French students leaving to study in Romania, Portugal or Spain.

Dr Velleine further cited outdated materials present in most veterinarian clinics as another deterrent for newcomers considering taking over practices.

Government action has helped

The Senate passed a bill on July 8, 2020, to counter veterinary deserts by providing financial help to incoming vets or students committed to setting up business in rural areas.

The government also opened access to veterinary studies to Baccalauréat graduates to raise the numerus clausus, the cap on graduate student numbers determined each year.

Christophe Degueurce, director of the École nationale vétérinaire d’Alfort, a vet school in Maisons-Alfort (Val-de-Marne), said: “It changed the game for us. It helped us recruit more students coming from different economic, geographical and social backgrounds.”

The school reported a record 160 students in 2021, following regular increases over the last 10 years.

Dr Degueurce added that students did not report being interested in healing wild animals in zoos – the recurrent idealised image of the industry – in the school’s 2021 survey.

It was the first time in the school’s history and a sign of positive change.

High suicide rate

The industry now has to deal with another problem.

New studies have shown the suicide rate is twice as high among vets as among medical professionals working with humans, and three to four times higher than among the general population.

“I am doing the most beautiful job in the world but it is not a dream job,” Dr Perrin said.

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