February 2023

In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, Dr. Felicia Leung, VETgirl Communications Coordinator, talks about how to find work-life balance in veterinary medicine… with relief work!

By Dr. Felicia Leung, DVM
VETgirl Communications Coordinator

Finding Work-Life Balance in Veterinary Medicine

Being a working mother of two children, 6 and under, and having a husband with a demanding and inflexible career made it hard for me to be an associate when I needed to be there to open and close and also be present on most weekends. Since my husband works long hours as an orthopedic surgeon and is occasionally on call on the weekends, I’m responsible for the majority of the drop offs and pickups for my kids at school.

I became a relief veterinarian seven years ago when I was pregnant with my first child because we were moving for only 1 year to North Carolina. My husband needed to do a year long fellowship and I didn’t think that anyone would hire me for just one year as an associate. I started with vaccine clinics until I became established and started getting more private and corporate practices asking for my help.

Now, seven years later, I’m my own boss and have an LLC for my relief business and a group of practices that I do regular relief for and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve found flexibility in determining my own schedule, not just the days I work, but the hours I work also. I can be more present in my kids’ lives and I even have time for myself each week. I’ve found a renewed interest in veterinary medicine as I was starting to experience burnout after being in the profession for almost 20 years now. I don’t get dragged down by office politics, toxic employees, or demanding long-term clients. In exchange, I pay my own taxes and all of my licenses, my liability insurance and worker’s compensation coverage, professional memberships, and expenses for my continuing education. I am fortunate that I can get coverage for a big expense, medical insurance, through my husband’s work. I needed to hire a CPA to help me pay estimated taxes quarterly and to help me find the best deductions for my work expenses. The nice thing about being a relief veterinarian though, you can charge enough to make up for all of that. I’ve been able to charge more for my services as an independent contractor and I make more than I ever did as an associate and I’m my own boss. And right now, with the shortage of veterinarians, relief veterinarians are in high demand. They fill open shifts at veterinary clinics when vets need time off or temporary positions that are waiting to be filled.

What does it take to be a successful relief veterinarian?

Since you’ll be going to different clinics, you’ll have to be able to adapt to different protocols and different equipment. Each clinic will have different pharmacy stock, different hospital setups and different personnel as well as clientele. If you’re a person that’s used to routine, things can vary widely since you’re not at the same clinic or hospital regularly and you’ll have to adapt readily.

With relief veterinary medicine, you need to be flexible with your schedule as there is no guarantee of your paycheck. Work may be seasonal depending on when vets will need to take time off for personal time or for vacation. You’ll have to plan in advance and I usually book my schedule 2-3 months ahead of time. With the shortage of veterinarians currently, I have fortunately not had trouble filling my schedule.


A Good Foundational Base
As a relief veterinarian, you’ll want to be confident in your medicine and/or surgical skills. If you’re a new grad, you often won’t have the luxury of mentorship. Sometimes you’ll be working solo in small private practices so there won’t be other vets to consult on a difficult case and you’ll be expected to work autonomously to get through your shift. Sometimes this means bringing your own resources like reference books and apps and maybe even your own equipment if you’re used to having certain things.

Excellent Organizational Skills
You’ll need to rely on your organizational skills to create and maintain your own schedule and to keep track of all the clinics and hospitals that you’ll be working at. You’ll also be in charge of keeping track of billing and payments, as well as your expenses and mileage for tax purposes. Good time management skills will also be important so that you can get all your records done before the end of your shift as you may not be there the next day and so that others can follow up on any cases that need it.

Relief veterinary medicine really depends on your reliability to work the shifts you’ve signed up for. Oftentimes, you may be the only veterinarian at a practice that day and as you are already the back up veterinarian, if you get ill or have an emergency arise, there is often no back up for you and that would leave a clinic/hospital in the lurch. Having kids makes this a little trickier for me as I often don’t have backup care if one of the kids gets sick. Luckily, in the rare instance that has happened, I’ve had very understanding clinics.

Personability and Communication Skills
Since you’ll be adapting to many different personnel and clientele, it’s important to be personable and have excellent communication skills. Being asked back to work at a clinic relies on a good reputation that you have with the staff and with the clients. You’ll also need to be able to communicate complicated cases for others to potentially take over when you’re not there the next day.

Although relief veterinary medicine can be very rewarding and flexible, it may not be right for everyone. Possessing skills like adaptability, personability, good communication and organizational skills, reliability and having a good foundation of knowledge are paramount. However, it can help you achieve the work-life balance you’ve been looking for in a challenging profession.

  1. I found this blog post really interesting actually. I didn’t even know you could be your own boss when doing relief work.

  2. Although this post is focused on relief veterinarians, all the information translates well to support staff as well. Of all the points, communication is the one I think is key. Too often, in our field, emotions are high and intent gets lost in communication leading to distrust, frustration and toxic work environments.

  3. Great post, Felicia! I, too, was a relief vet for 7 years (before changing to academia.) Especially with being a parent, there is nothing like it. I honestly think it saved my career at the time. Glad to see it’s working well for you, and you are taking advantage of a great area of vet med that I feel is underserved.

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