RICHARD Snedden knows all too well the importance of receiving timely care for a sick family member.
Last week, Luna, his two-year-old Saint Bernard, was diagnosed with a tumour and is being treated at the area's largest veterinary hospital, the Animal Referral and Emergency Centre at Broadmeadow.
"We got in within 24 hours to see a specialist," Mr Snedden said, who had driven Luna from their Telarah home, about 30 minutes away.
But help for Hunter pets is under strain, and, just as Mr Snedden has done, it can mean travelling to access treatment.
The region is dealing with a shortage of veterinarians that has forced the closure of clinics and prompted a group of Hunter practices to organise its own recruitment day.
David Tabrett, managing director of the Animal Referral and Emergency Centre (AREC), said his business could employ three more full-time vets straight away.
"I've been a vet for 30 years in the Hunter, and I've never seen the shortages as bad as I've seen them now," Dr Tabrett said.
Those shortages led to AREC having to shut its East Maitland clinic, which offered an after-hours service. The clinic's doors have been closed since late 2017.
"We were struggling to keep it adequately staffed, said Dr Tabrett. "If someone called in sick, we'd have to pull in someone from Maitland to cover here at Broadmeadow. It got to the point where it was unfair to the referring vets in the area, and to the pet owners, at 5 or 6 o'clock at night to send out a message saying, 'We're going to have to shut'.
"We don't want to reopen until we're actually sure we can staff it correctly."
David Tabrett said he was hardly alone in the search for new vets.
"I've spoken to two vets in the past two weeks, in general practice, who have been considering shutting their doors. One has been advertising for two years and had no applicants in that time," he said.
The Kookaburra Veterinary Employment website this week had 19 posts advertising permanent jobs in the Hunter region.
One ad was for a full-time veterinarian at Greencross Vets' Rutherford clinic. That facility is presently closed due to the vet shortage, according to Glenn Nettlefold, the organisation's Area Manager NSW North.
In a statement to the Herald, Mr Nettlefold wrote, "Greencross Vets will continue to work on recruiting a vet for our Rutherford clinic but at this point will continue to refer clients into our Maitland clinic."
The shortage besetting the Hunter is part of a wider issue for the industry. The Federal Government's Department of Jobs and Small Business website carried a report in 2018 saying demand for vets had increased strongly while the growth in "new supply" had slowed. It quoted a survey indicating only 28 per cent of vacancies had been filled.
When Dr Gail Melluish wanted to employ a veterinarian for a clinic due to open at Cameron Park in August, she placed advertisements online, expecting to quickly find someone.
"We didn't really get any response," Dr Melluish, owner of the Cardiff Veterinary Hospital, said.
After advertising for about three months, Dr Melluish relied on word-of-mouth to find a veterinarian for the new practice.
"It's certainly a buyer's market at the moment; the vets out there have a multitude of jobs to pick from," she said.
The shortage of vets can mean more stress for existing practices, and for pet owners.
David Tabrett explained that when the East Maitland clinic was running its after-hours service, vets in areas such as Cessnock and Singleton could refer patients there. But not at the moment: "That puts pressure back on those GP vets ... to be on call every night."
Louise Trist is a director of the East Maitland Veterinary Clinic. She said her practice was "actually pretty good" with vet numbers, but, for after-hours cases, she no longer had the option of sending clients "five minutes away" to the AREC clinic. Instead, the pet owners had to travel to the Broadmeadow centre to access its 24-hour, 7-day service.
"They don't like it," Dr Trist said of her clients' reactions to the change. "The extra travelling, it's a worry."
Members of the local veterinary profession are taking it upon themselves to attract more practitioners to the Hunter. David Tabrett's business is linking with half a dozen other practices, from smaller clinics to the RSPCA Hunter and Greencross Vets, to host a recruitment day on March 31. As far as he knows, no other region in Australia has taken such a collaborative approach to recruiting vets.
"The key thing for us is to showcase the area, and to showcase the practices as well," Dr Tabrett said.
As well as presentations from the clinics, the visitors would be given an insight into the quality of life here, being taken to lunch by the beach.
Doctor Tabrett said he had received inquiries from mostly Sydney, but also from as far away as Queensland. The local vets held a similar event last year. Twelve attended; two moved to the Hunter. This year, he is hoping for more than 20 to come to the recruitment day, and for up to six to sign on.
"I do know there is enough demand in the area to take that kind of influx," Dr Tabrett said.
"Hopefully it will bear fruit for us all."