A TRUSTED office manager at a Plymouth veterinary firm drove it to the brink of ruin by stealing £290,000, a court heard.
Della Barbour worked for the Elm Veterinary Group for years, and had total control of the financial records and banking the takings.
But she betrayed her employers and colleagues, who regarded her as their friend, blowing the fortune she stole on an extravagant lifestyle.
Prosecutor Jason Beal told Plymouth Crown Court that Barbour had worked for many years for one of the firms, which amalgamated in 2005, and was kept on by directors John Parkinson and Richard Moar.
Mr Beal said: "They trusted her implicitly and had no reason to doubt her ability or integrity."
He said the two surgeries, in Milehouse and Plymstock, were very busy but profits were low.
The firm was forced into cost-cutting measures including a wage freeze, not replacing staff who left and restricting stock purchases.
No-one realised that Barbour was taking the money from the till, paying in smaller amounts at NatWest and pocketing the rest.
She was asked to record the daily, weekly and monthly takings in a book, but put in fake figures to cover her thefts, also inputting wrong data into the firm's Sage book-keeping system to fool the accountants.
Other colleagues started to become suspicious, reporting that she was buying expensive clothing, haircuts and gifts for her children, constantly carrying lots of cash and "spending like there was no tomorrow". Mr Beal said the firm held meetings at the end of 2010 to discuss ways of managing its financial state, with redundancies considered.
But when the partners were told of colleagues' suspicions, one of them compared the till receipts with the money Barbour had paid into the bank.
He found thousands of pounds had gone missing every month.
Police were informed, and discovered that over a five-year period, Barbour had paid £125,000 cash into her Santander account and spent £100,000 on private education for her four children.
Barbour was arrested in 2011, admitting theft but lying about the amount taken and when the thefts had started.
It was discovered that in July 2010, Barbour received £33,000 as a divorce settlement, spent £17,000 on school fees and credit card bills and blew the rest in a month, including a £2,000 shopping spree in London, with visits to Harrods and Vidal Sassoon.
She then carried on stealing.
The firm is being charged £48,000 VAT on money it received but which was stolen by Barbour.
Richard Maitland, for Barbour, said she had "descended into a vortex of theft" and wished to apologise publicly.
She had been treated for depression since 2002 and her goal when her marriage broke up in early 2006 was to look after her children, he said.
Her family had now been split up.
She had saved a huge amount of public money by not going to trial or disputing the police figures, he said.
Judge Francis Gilbert QC told Barbour she had been paid a "generous" salary of £23,000, but stole around £50,000 a year to spend on her family and extravagant living.
"You did very serious harm to your employers and fellow employees," he said.
"You risked the jobs of others and caused redundancies.
"This was a very, very serious breach of trust on a very substantial scale."
He jailed Barbour, aged 51 and of Rolston Close, Tamerton Foliot, for a total of 32 months for theft and false accounting, both of which she admitted.
He ordered her to pay a token £5 compensation as she had no assets, saying that if any money came to light, the amount could be revisited.