In the crossfire: Russian veterinarians count costs of war

Drug, pet food prices rise, practitioners report; brain drain may loom

Published: April 08, 2022
Photo courtesy of Dr. Anna Maltseva
Until a few weeks ago, Dr. Anna Maltseva worked at a busy hospital in Moscow. She has since left the country, in part to maintain her right to speak against the war in Ukraine.

At a large, bustling veterinary practice in Moscow, people continue to bring in their pets for regular consultations as if nothing has changed. Not everything, however, is the same as it was six weeks ago, when Russia invaded Ukraine.

For one, appointments for specialist consultations, such as for neurological and cardiological conditions, have dropped 30% to 50%, according to Dr. Artem Pavluchenko, a practitioner who works in the hospital's emergency department.

The decline in bookings is one of a number of early signs that sanctions by Western countries are beginning to cripple Russia's economy, with meaningful implications for the tens of thousands of veterinarians who live and work there.

Prices for everything from veterinary medicines to pet food are jumping, as the sanctions disrupt supply chains already strained by the Covid-19 pandemic. Skills shortages are possible, too, because some practitioners are leaving the country to escape government oppression.

Among them is Pavluchenko, 38, who, with his wife, is considering moving abroad with their infant son.

"For the first three days of the war, I could do nothing but look for news of what was happening in Ukraine," Pavluchenko said. "And I know that many of my colleagues were just stunned by this invasion and the actions of our state."

In brief

So far, Pavluchenko says, the war, which began Feb. 24, has had a "rather weak" impact on the day-to-day lives of ordinary Russians. But he expects living conditions to deteriorate, as sanctions weigh and Western companies continue to wind down operations or completely withdraw from Russia.

International condemnation of the invasion has grown more palpable in recent days, and sanctions more severe, amid the release of shocking images and witness accounts indicating the torture and murder of Ukrainian civilians on the outskirts of Kyiv.

Since the war began, hundreds of companies, from Apple to Xerox, have shrunk or ceased their operations in Russia, either to comply with sanctions or voluntarily in response to public anger about the invasion. Veterinary companies are among them. Like other health care providers, they have been more likely to scale back rather than withdraw from Russia because they supply essential services to people and animals.

Mars, the biggest owner of veterinary practices in the world, made inroads into the Russian hospitals space last year when its Swedish subsidiary, AniCura, formed a joint venture with a Russian veterinary chain, White Fang. Mars, a conglomerate best known for making candy, also sells pet food in Russia.

The McLean, Virginia-based company referred the VIN News Service to a press release it issued about the war on March 10, in which it confirmed it employs nearly 6,000 people in Russia. "We have decided to scale back our business and will refocus our efforts in Russia on our essential role in feeding the Russian people and pets," it said in the release.

Mars said any profits from its Russian business would be used for humanitarian causes. It also has suspended new investments in Russia and pledged to not import or export its products in or out of the country.

Zoetis, the world's biggest veterinary pharmaceutical company by sales, said it suspended all investment and promotional activities in Russia. "Our business in Russia will be focused on maintaining a supply of medicines and vaccines in compliance with any sanctions that are put in place," its chief executive, Kristin Peck, said in a letter to staff dated March 16.

On the ground, veterinarians tell of substantial price inflation.

"Clinics are still working, and everyday routines are the same," said Dr. Anna Maltseva, a 36-year-old practitioner who worked at the same practice as Pavluchenko until last month, when she left for Spain, then Serbia. "But, of course, medical equipment, materials and medicine are getting more and more expensive."

Before leaving Russia, Maltseva also noticed a shortage of some medications, such as the anesthetic agents tiletamine and zolazepame. "Most doctors don't have opioids in Russia, so tiletamine is an important part of analgesia," she said.

Pavluchenko said that in addition to a sharp drop in specialist appointments, the number of complex surgeries performed at the hospital has decreased.

The price of imported veterinary drugs and consumables has jumped by about 30% to 40% and will likely rise further, while the price of dog and cat food has spiked about 20%, according to Pavluchenko. He also reported a decline in the availability of laboratory reagents supplied by diagnostics companies, mentioning Idexx Laboratories as an example.

Idexx, based in Westbrook, Maine, told VIN News that it suspended the shipment and sales of veterinary diagnostic equipment in Russia amid a significant scaling back of its operations there. "Our focus is on supporting our employees and veterinary customers that already use an Idexx product so they may continue to provide essential care," a company spokeswoman said. "We continue to closely monitor the situation and are complying with all applicable laws and sanctions."

Furthermore, veterinarians in Russia are limited in what they can buy from overseas, including educational and professional development resources, such as virtual conference registrations, due to Western sanctions imposed on Russian banks.

Practitioners decamp to Serbia, Turkey and elsewhere

The primary reason Maltseva left and Pavluchenko is preparing to leave is that they are opposed to the invasion and feel uneasy about living under a government that doesn't tolerate dissent.

Pavluchenko said that although his friends in Ukraine are alive and relatively safe, he was moved by reports of the shooting deaths near Kyiv in early March of two veterinarians and their daughter. Another of the couple's three children later died in a hospital.

Outraged by the violence, he is among 20 Russian veterinarians who recorded a video message opposing the war. They were soon forced to remove it from social networks after the government led by President Vladimir Putin enacted a law in early March criminalizing "false news" about the Russian military, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Street protests are short-lived, with a "whole army" of special police immediately arresting activists before fining them and threatening prison should they speak out again, Pavluchenko said. "All organized opposition in the country is completely destroyed."

A former veterinary technician who became a veterinarian in 2007, Pavluchenko said two of his colleagues, including Maltseva, went to Spain en route to Serbia. Another is in Turkey. Two more, both veterinary neurologists, have found jobs in Georgia, a country bordering Russia. "Of course, this is not a typical situation," Pavluchenko said. "Most doctors will stay in Russia and continue to treat animals."

Maltseva — who left the country on March 3 with her partner, also a veterinarian, child and pet dog — notes that not all of her compatriots have anti-war views. "Some colleagues believe in propaganda," she said. "And it's difficult to work near people who think that our country had reasons to do this."

At the same time, she knows of veterinarians from other clinics in Moscow and Saint Petersburg who are planning to leave or have left, including Dr. Andrei Albul, whom the VIN News Service spoke with last month. Albul also has landed in Georgia.

For her part, Maltseva and her family were able to stay with friends in Spain on a tourist visa. She and her husband subsequently found work in Serbia, where the family arrived this week. Finding work was challenging, Maltseva said, because Russian qualifications aren't officially recognized in the European Union or United States. (Serbia, although part of eastern Europe, is not a member of the EU).

Pavluchenko and his wife haven't decided where they will go. He's had a job offer from a small practice in the U.S. as a trainee manager and also perhaps as a veterinary technician. "But I plan to spend a few days looking for alternatives," he said. "Of course, everything is complicated by the fact that we were absolutely not preparing for the move — I do not have a diploma confirmation in English-speaking countries."

Maltseva has mixed feelings about returning to Russia. "I love my country and there are still many wonderful people — there are many lovely colleagues who don't have the opportunity to leave," she said. "There are my parents, and it's absolutely heartbreaking not to be sure when we're going to meet again."

But without a change in its government leadership, she does not intend to go back because, she said, "I don't feel free and don't feel safe in my country now."

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