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FAQ: What is a Relief Veterinarian and Should You Hire One?

Updated: Jul 30, 2023

Virtually every field has a variety of different permanent roles and other roles that serve to fill in the gaps. Sometimes, these are part-time assistants or substitutes; other times, they're traveling additions to a team for temporary residencies, training, or experience.

Relief veterinarians are one of these temporary roles. While the person who assumes the role of a relief veterinarian isn't any less skilled than a permanent member of a team, they don't set down roots and build a long-term career where they are.

What exactly is a relief veterinarian, what benefits do they bring to an animal hospital, and should you hire one for your team? Read on to learn more.

What is a Relief Veterinarian?

Also known as a locum veterinarian (short for locum tenens, which is Latin for "place holder"), a relief veterinarian is a temporary fill-in for more permanent staff.

It's a role akin to a substitute teacher or other form of temporary replacement for staff who take extended leaves of absence or cases where an important role just can't be filled on a permanent basis right away.

What Does a Relief Veterinarian Do?

Relief veterinarians embody the same level of professionalism as a standard veterinarian. Their training, certifications, and experiences mirror those of their stationary counterparts, yet their paths diverge due to differing personal motivations and circumstances. Some opt for this roaming lifestyle as a result of frequent travels or a lack of desire to establish permanent roots. Others are in constant exploration, seeking a location that perfectly resonates with their professional aspirations or personal lifestyle.

Moreover, a unique set of advantages comes with relief roles, appealing to a certain group of vets. One of these is the freedom and flexibility inherent in the role, an aspect cherished by those who don't want to be tethered to one place. It provides an opportunity to explore different locations, veterinary practices, and ways of life while maintaining their professional practice.

Additionally, relief veterinarian roles offer a viable path toward semi-retirement. For those vets who harbor a profound love for their work but no longer wish to commit to it full-time, this approach presents an ideal solution. It enables them to scale down their workload without completely exiting the field they're passionate about, thereby offering a balanced blend of work, leisure, and exploration.

One thing is certain: Relief veterinarians are fully-qualified veterinarians.

At least in general. Now and then, you might encounter relief vets who jump from place to place because they can't stand up to scrutiny for long, but honestly, that's a very rare happenstance. The world of vet relief is challenging enough that the less skilled participants tend to either develop their skills to compete or fall back to less strenuous positions.

Relief vets can fill any role you might have, though you need to make sure you're working with the right vet for the job. Some relief vets are GPs who handle the day-to-day checkups and simple exams. Others are more comfortable with surgery or emergencies.

When is it a Good Idea to Hire a Relief Veterinarian?

Any time your practice or animal hospital is struggling with patient burden or needs a specialist you don't have on hand can be a good opportunity to hire a relief veterinarian.

Examples might include:

  • Your primary veterinarian is going on temporary leave for a medical issue.

  • Your primary veterinarian is going on maternity/paternity leave.

  • Your primary veterinarian is reaching critical burnout and needs some relief for mental health reasons.

  • Seasonal or societal surges in demand require more capacity than your current staff can handle, but you know it will fade in a few months, so you don't need to hire a long-term staff member, for example, during the breeding season for livestock.

  • You simply can't find long-term staff members on short notice, but you still need the added capacity while you search.

  • There are many valid reasons to hire a relief veterinarian, but they all boil down to one key situation: you need someone to help in a way another veterinary nurse can't, but the need is temporary.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Hiring a Relief Veterinarian?

There are a handful of benefits and a few distinct drawbacks to using a relief veterinarian to fill gaps and add coverage.

On the pros side, you have:

  • You can work with a relief company for guaranteed access to someone to fill the gaps in your schedule.

  • You can contract a relief veterinarian on short notice and have someone ready to go very quickly.

  • You don't have to worry about hiring and firing, relationship building, or a lengthy interview process.

On the other hand, there are a few good reasons why practices may not want to work with a relief veterinarian, such as:

  • Relief vets often don't expect to be in one place for long and may let their bedside manner or relationship-building skills with patients lapse.

  • Relief vets can be more expensive than standard hires because they're covering their own travel, moving, and benefits costs as freelancers, as well as costs like licensing, insurance, taxes, and more.

  • There's often an added overhead to negotiating contracts, terms, and schedules with relief vets that you don't get with a typical hire.

Sometimes, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, or the need outweighs the issues. Other times, it's better to operate on your current capacity while you look for a permanent hire instead. There's no right answer here; you have to decide for yourself what option is best for your practice at the moment.

How Much Do Relief Vets Charge?

Relief vets are often more costly in purely monetary terms than hiring an equivalent vet long-term. This is because you're paying them not just their salary but also whatever they charge to cover additional costs, fees, and other expenses they need to handle their own licensing, insurance, and taxes. Since they're freelancers and contract workers, they handle all of that themselves.

At the same time, you aren't covering their fees, and you aren't providing benefits, which can be an additional savings for your practice. In practice, it can end up a wash.

While the exact salaries a relief vet commands can be varied depending on specialty and geographic location, a general range for a GP is in the $100-$130 per hour range, with Indeed estimating that relief vets average $111,000 per year.

How Might You Hire a Relief Veterinarian?

There are generally three options for hiring a relief vet.

Option 1: Work with a company that manages relief vets. There are a variety of companies that serve as intermediaries for relief vets. These companies build up a list of relief vets across the country, as well as a list of veterinary practices and animal hospitals who need the added capacity, and play matchmaker. The company will handle a bunch of the tedium with standardized contracts, added protection for both parties, and communication.

This option is the most convenient, but as with many things in life, convenience has a cost. The company will usually take a cut of the salaries and fees the relief vet earns, meaning your costs are higher than they would be if you hired the relief vet directly instead.

Companies that provide this service include IndieVets, Holiday Vet, Vet IQ Staffing, Roo Vet, and Relief Rover.

Option 2: Look for relief vets and hire them directly. For this option, you have to be proactive. You have a need for a vet to work specific times or for specific specialties, and you go out searching. Many relief vets build websites where you can reach out to them directly or work through standard freelancing platforms.

For this option, you need to be capable of spending the time required to reach out, communicate with, and negotiate with the relief vet. You need to reach an agreement that satisfies your needs and compensates the vet appropriately. Depending on your workload and other duties, this can be a tall order, especially if you aren't practiced in the human resources side of practice.

Option 3: Post job listings for relief vets and let them come to you. This is the most passive but also least efficient method of hiring a relief vet. You can post your openings on general job sites, on your own website, and on veterinary-specific job sites. As long as you make it clear that the position is temporary, that you're looking for a relief/locum vet, or that you're looking for a contractor or freelancer for short-term work, you can help filter the people who may apply.

This option has the least immediate overhead since you just craft a job listing and let people come to you. On the other hand, you may not always get the best applicants for a given role, and if you need people with in-demand specialties, you might not get any bites at all. This is especially true right now, with the ongoing vet shortage. Most vets are in demand enough that practices come to them, so being passive might not work.

The method you choose also depends on your needs and your skill set. There's no best option.

To Vets: Should You Consider a Relief Vet Career?

For those of you who are considering going into relief vet work instead of more traditional long-term practice work, know that it can be fairly stressful but also high-reward.

Relief vets don't stay in one place for long, and their job descriptions are constantly changing as they fill whatever shoes need filling for their latest clients. They tend to thrive in fast-paced, changing conditions and prize adaptability over stability. Relief vets can also dictate their own work-life balance more than many traditional vets; if you need a break, you can take one as long as you can afford it.

Relief veterinarians, however, can face a unique set of challenges. The perpetual need to secure the next client or seek out further opportunities can induce stress. The nomadic lifestyle, while offering a sense of freedom and adventure, may also create a degree of uncertainty. Establishing long-term personal and professional relationships can be more challenging, given the inherent transience of the role. Yet, this is not to say that it isn't a fulfilling career path for many. Some practitioners truly thrive in this dynamic environment, while others might find it more taxing over time.

Interestingly, relief work appeals to a broad range of veterinarians, not limited to those who are new to the field. Many semi-retired vets, for example, find the flexibility and varied experience an attractive option as they transition into a less intensive work phase.

Moreover, the term 'short-term' in this context doesn't strictly denote a brief period. Relief roles can sometimes last months, sometimes years, offering a level of continuity that doesn't necessarily significantly disrupt personal well-being or professional growth.

For those seeking diverse experiences or contemplating their specialty, the role of a relief vet can be a strategic choice. It allows them to gain exposure to various practices, specialties, and geographic locations before deciding on their long-term career trajectory. Hence, relief vets represent a wide age spectrum, each bringing their unique perspective to this versatile profession.

Either way, it's certainly a unique experience and can be valuable for personal and professional development.

Are There Other Options?


At Hope Vet, we're an alternative to hiring a costly freelancer or a long-term veterinary worker for a practice that doesn't need the exclusive services of such a vet.

Here's what we do. We provide expert knowledge and consultations for general medicine, critical care, complex internal medicine, oncology, dermatology, and neurology. Our highly-trained specialists are on call for individual consultations for specific patients. When your practice has a need for expert opinions but you don't have enough ongoing demand to hire someone, we provide that consultation.

Here's an example of a report we would send you. You provide us with the details of the case, and we write our impressions in a report for you.

So, what's the best option? It depends on your needs.

  • If you have a sporadic, occasional need for expert advice, contact us to learn more about our services.

  • If you have a need for temporary but consistent services, such as for a specialty or to fill a gap in your roster temporarily, consider hiring a relief vet to fill that role.

  • If you need to expand your capacity and grow, hire a long-term vet, but consider a relief vet to provide temporary services while you search.

Whatever the choice, as long as you can provide the best possible care for your patients, you can't go wrong.

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