Veterinarians’ attitude to infection control ‘complacent’

Navneet Dhand.
Navneet Dhand.

Infection control practices of Australian veterinarians are dangerously inadequate, according to a University of Sydney study published this month.

The study, published in Preventative Veterinary Medicine, found that 44.9 per cent of veterinarians had contracted a zoonotic disease through their work. Based on a survey of veterinarians attending the 2011 Australian Veterinary Association annual conference, the findings suggest a marked disparity between perception and reality of risk, with 40 to 60 per cent of veterinarians perceiving exposure to zoonosis likely or highly likely.

The study was conducted to determine vets’ perception of risk of contracting a disease from the animals they treat, the measures they use to protect themselves and the factors that influence their adoption of those measures. The survey was conducted by Karen Dowd, a Veterinary Public Health Management masters student.

“There is an urgent need for our profession to better educate vets about protecting themselves, and by extension the general public, against contracting infection from animals,” principal investigator Navneet Dhand said.

“Not using appropriate protection is just like having unprotected sex with a stranger.”

The study found that Australian veterinarians did not use appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). A staggering 60-70 per cent failed to use PPE when investigating neurological and respiratory cases, although they were slightly more likely to use PPE when treating animals with dermatological or gastrointestinal signs.

“It is worth remembering that zoonotic (contracted from animals) diseases, such as equine Hendra virus and avian influenza (H7N7) represent 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases for humans,” Dhand said.

Only 75 per cent of veterinarians use adequate PPE (such as masks, gowns and gloves) when performing post-mortems, dental procedures and surgery.

“The results of the study are concerning,” Dhand said. “Our profession appears to have a complacent attitude towards the use of personal protection.”

The study also found that over one third (34.8 per cent) of veterinary hospitals did not have isolation units for animals with contagious or infectious diseases, one fifth (21.1 per cent) of practices do not have staff eating areas separate from animals and around 60 per cent of workplaces do not make adequate use of national industry standard infection control kits designed to protect staff against infection.

Despite a high risk for contracting a zoonotic disease, around half of veterinarians perceived their risk as low – a perception that Dhand and colleagues are eager to change, as those perceiving their risk to be low were less likely to use adequate PPE. Other factors influencing use of PPE included workplace culture (with private practices trailing behind Government practices in appropriate use) awareness of biosecurity guidelines and a perception that use of PPE would decrease liability in the case of legal action.

With new concerns about potentially catastrophic zoonotic diseases, including Hendra virus, Q fever, MRSA and Australian Bay Lyssavirus, the AVA has updated its Guidelines for Veterinary Personal Biosecurity, available at



Dowd K, Taylor M, Toribio J, Hooker C and Dhand N (2013) Zoonotic disease risk perceptions and infection control practices of Australian Veterinarians: Call for change in work culture. Preventative Veterinary Medicine




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