'It's getting harder and harder everyday', vet Lisa Price tells ITV Wales journalist Katie Fenton
A shortage of vets in Wales is leaving staff exhausted and facing verbal abuse, as new pet owners are left struggling to get appointments.
The number of UK-trained vets is traditionally low, but vets have told ITV Wales that shortfall has been exacerbated by Brexit, the Covid pandemic and a rise in breeding.
The clinical director of Lakeside Veterinary Surgery in Swansea said EU locums would usually fill the gap, but uncertainty around travel has caused them to "disappear".
Lisa Price said: "Because of the uncertainty around Brexit as to whether the European vets would be welcome to come and work, or whether they'd have to have more paperwork involved, I think a lot of the European locums decided not to come over.
"Then shortly after Brexit the Covid pandemic emerged, which just was a double whammy really, and most of the foreign vets actually disappeared completely."
She also said that new graduates are reluctant to enter the industry as a result of the longer hours and extreme pressure.
Now, where there would normally be three vets working in her surgery, Lisa is the only one left.
It means the surgery has paid a vet in Greece more than £5,000 to cover Lisa while she takes annual leave, but a break is something she desperately needs.
"In the last week I've been taking a nap at lunchtime because I'm just so tired," she explained.
"I'm usually a person that is wide awake, but I think the stress, it just takes its toll over time.
"I've been doing this now for seven or eight months, and it's getting harder and harder everyday."
Lisa said receptionists at her surgery face verbal abuse from pet owners on almost a daily basis.
Research from the British Veterinary Association found that the number of vets facing intimidating behaviour has risen over the past year.
In extreme cases, several vets reported having to lock receptions and call out the police in the face of threats of physical violence from aggravated clients.
"We do have more clients ringing on a daily basis asking us for appointments, but unfortunately we had to make the decision that we weren't going to take any more clients on," Lisa explained.
"We have had members of staff in tears when they've had an abusive phone call, when somebody demands to be seen and they're trying to explain to the best of their ability why we can't see them straight away.
"We try our best to see anybody that is urgent or an emergency, and others will have to wait. It makes me really sad that I can't do the best for my clients and for the animals in the area."
The British Veterinary Association said more vet school places are part of the answer.
Collin Willson, president of the Welsh branch, said: "There's no quick fix, more veterinary school places are required and this is already in the pipeline with the Welsh school in Aberystwyth opening up in September.
"But also we've traditionally imported a lot of vets from within Europe and other countries, and currently the visa requirements are proving very, very problematical for those trying to bring people into this country."
The UK Government has added vets to its 'shortage occupation' list, which it said will make it easier for employers to recruit vets from overseas. It has also opened two new schools in England.
During lockdown, the number of online searches for puppies increased more than six times, with 15,000 searches in July 2020 compared to 2,000 in January 2020, according to the RSPCA.
Lisa said the small amount of remaining staff are struggling to cope with the rising number of new puppy owners requiring vaccinations, health checks and treatment for their pets.New puppy owner Diane Eynon, who lives in Neath, said she tried contacting vets in Merthyr, Brecon, Swansea, Clydach and Port Talbot before picking up her Goldendoodle, Willow.
But having failed to find a vet that was taking on new customers, she thought she would have to give Willow up.
Puppies are required to have certain vaccinations before being taken out in public. Delaying these can have a negative impact on their behavioural development.
"I was panicking because of the need for Willow to have had the second injection, she couldn't be socialised without it," Diane said.
"She would be stuck in this garden, and even now this really isn't quite stimulating enough."
Diane was "heartbroken" after spending so long finding a reputable breeder.
"I actually got to Thursday and I just thought, I've just got to give her up. I really did think that I wasn't going to be able to go through with the whole process."
Diane eventually found a vet in Carmarthen, but will have to travel more than 40 miles every time Willow needs treatment.
She said: "If I'd been aware of the situation with vets, I wouldn't have gone ahead with actually looking for a puppy now.
"It's just a case of trying further afield each time, if you really want to go ahead, other than that, cancel."