Veterinarians Suffering Backlogs and Burnout

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Veterinarians say they’ve never seen so much demand for their services.  Pandemic protocols such as curbside care and extra exam room disinfection have slowed down the appointment rate while pet parents missed appointments early in the pandemic and are now having trouble getting their pet into their veterinarian.

According to the ASPCA, 23 million pets found a forever home during the pandemic; pets like Nicole Huelsman’s French bulldog Magdelena.

“I was moving and wanted a partner and she’s the perfect little girl,” she said.

When Huelsman saw a bump on Magdelena’s leg she called her vet.

“They couldn’t get her in until next week,” Huelsman explained.

So, she brought the 2-year-old to Piper Veterinary Hospital’s emergency room in Middletown instead.

“Our ER now sees about 30% more patients per month,” said the hospital’s medical director Dr. James Hammond.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association the so-called “pandemic puppy surge” isn’t to blame.

“We would actually say that the number of pets that were adopted during the pandemic decreased over pre-pandemic adoptions,” said Dr. Lori Teller, president-elect.

While Teller said there were nearly half-million fewer adoptions in 2020 than in 2019, the demand for veterinarians has certainly skyrocketed.

“Part of it comes from early in the pandemic when we could only see urgent cases.  A lot of people were scared to get out and weren’t bringing their pets in and there was a real backlog,” she explained.

Teller said pet parents working from home are quick to notice when their animals aren’t acting right, leading to more calls to their vet.

“You catch it in a matter of minutes if she’s acting weird,” said Torri Ann Woodruff of Hartford.

Woodruff has brought her 7-month-old puppy Mara to the emergency room three times since adopting her earlier this year.  She said her regular veterinarian was too busy to see her on Monday.

“They said they didn’t have time to do all of the diagnostic testing that she would need,” Woodruff explained. "I appreciate the honesty and don’t mind having to do it if it means that I don’t have to wait and watch them hurt.”

Mara's owner, Tori Ann Woodruff, took her to the emergency room after her regular veterinarian couldn't get her in for an appointment.

Veterinarians also say pet parents are taking their dogs on longer walks more often because they’re sick of being stuck inside their home. While the fresh air is good, many dogs were used to spending eight to 10 hours laying around while their owners were at the office.

So, there may be a bit of weekend warrior syndrome. 

“Some of them may sustain some injuries, some sore muscles, and if that doesn’t subside quickly then we are seeing patients for pain and strained muscles, things like that,” said Teller.

Speaking of being overworked, clinics can’t fill positions fast enough to keep up with the demand and staffing shortages are leading to burnout.

“There’s lots of job openings. Some of this is brought on by the pandemic.  Most of those we hope to see will be short-term,” said Teller.

Record retirements are expected in the veterinary field in the next 15 years while veterinary jobs are expected to grow faster than other occupations, according to the US Department of Labor.

“Certainly there is a lot of burnout. We’re seeing that across the profession not only in veterinarians but in the staff,” said Hammond.

As more clinics push pets to the ER, the overflow of patients is also leading to longer, socially distanced, wait times.

Huelsman said she waited more than three hours to be reunited with Magdelena.

“It’s sit in your car and wait,” said Huelsman recalling what pre-pandemic appointments were like.  “It was just nice being face to face with the actual vet or the vet tech and watching her get checked out.”

Pieper Veterinary recommends making routine care appointments weeks or months in advance, ensuring your pet is on their preventive medicine, and not to come to the emergency room unless it is truly an emergency.  If you do come, the hospital says expect a long wait.

“They’re really at capacity in terms of who they can see and the amount of new patients they can see,” said Hammond.  “At some point some of the ERs and we find this here and across the state will go to capacity and we can’t see those patients unless they are gravely ill,” added Hammond.

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