Veterinary Relations in the Time of COVID

Previously published in the Massachusetts Animal Coalition Newsletter, November 2021

Covid-19 has turned our animal sheltering and rescue world upside down. Everything takes longer. People are exhausted and cranky. We are hearing so many complaints about shelters not calling people back, the impossible search for a new pet, veterinarians being booked out for weeks or even months, and emergency rooms turning sick pets away. These may all be true stories but before you criticize you might consider looking at the bigger picture. Let’s look at the veterinary world in particular. And let’s just talk about Massachusetts.

Before Covid -19 came along the veterinary profession was facing some challenges. There was a shortage of veterinary technicians and even veterinarians. Then Covid-19 showed up, creating havoc everywhere. Just look at so many aspects of your daily life and how things have changed. Grocery stores have empty shelves. There is a long wait for a plumber to fix your leaky faucet. Your auto mechanic can’t get parts quickly. And your veterinarian is experiencing huge disruptions, too.

The simple fact that so many new pets have flooded into our lives creates a higher than usual demand for basic veterinary services – and emergency services. There are staff shortages in all animal-related businesses and the pandemic has changed how veterinarians can safely deliver care to animals. Everything has slowed down – the supply chain, the methods for accommodating so many animals, and there is a finite amount of time every day. The result for the urgent and emergency care hospitals is having to say, on occasion, that they can’t help because they have more cases than they can accommodate. Veterinarians can only do what they can realistically, safely, physically, and emotionally do. That means they sometimes have to say no. And it can’t feel good to be in a profession focused on helping animals and not be able to do just that.

We asked veterinarians around Massachusetts to tell us about their struggles: In the Berkshires, Dr. John Reynolds says, “During the last eighteen months, our veterinary team has been faced with a number of novel challenges that we needed to address and overcome. Initially we needed to continue to care for the urgent and preventative needs of our patients during a time when much was unknown about the infectious nature of Covid 19. Our veterinary team broke into teams to prevent the possibility of having to completely shut down if we had an outbreak in our hospital. We instituted curbside check-ins and outdoor appointments. Over the following year, we adapted to having appointment conversations with our clients in the parking lot – during all sorts of weather conditions. These changes pushed all our teams to become more efficient and creative in how to address the needs of our patients and clients while staying safe from exposure to Covid-19. At times, the stress of change and worry was overwhelming to some team members, but we all supported one another to get through it. Our clients have also been incredibly understanding and supportive to our veterinary and resort (kennel) teams – sending us thank you notes, food and simply expressing their support.”

At Boston Veterinary Care, the Animal Rescue League of Boston’s veterinary clinic, Dr. Nicole Breda, Medical Director says, “We are seeing a record number of people opening up their homes to new pets as many owners are now spending more time working from home. At the same time, veterinary hospitals that even pre-pandemic were staffed conservatively have seen a massive loss of skilled certified technicians and veterinarians to other industries outside of private and ER practice due to burn out, COVID concerns, and child care issues. Being chronically short-staffed and combating increasing demand for veterinary services means longer wait times at ER’s (or some ER’s needing to close their doors) and longer wait times to see your own veterinarian. Despite the challenges, staff and patients alike have learned to adapt and while the process to deliver care has changed, the quality of care has not.”

Dr. Karen Follett, Staff Veterinarian at TJO Animal Control and Adoption Center Staff Veterinarian explained that, “The national veterinary shortage has had a serious domino effect on many animal shelters. Our urban animal control center has been heavily impacted by a shortage of veterinarians in private practices, which frequently left them unable to see sick or injured animals, or forced appointments to be booked weeks to months out, especially if they were not already established clients. Many, many pet owners in our area are unable to afford the cost involved in receiving care at an emergency clinic. Additionally, emergency clinics are not within this community which adds transportation as an additional challenge for pet owners. This led to a large increase in the number of pet owners reaching out to us for urgent medical needs. This continues to strain our tiny staff to the maximum as we do our very best to provide some relief to pet and owner.”

Todd Leiberman, DVM at Commonwealth Veterinary Hospital, talked about the struggles of a private practice veterinarian. “Being a general practice veterinarian, we have encountered a substantial increase in the amount of pets that are in need of medical treatment on a daily basis. This is not necessarily due to an increase in overall pet adoptions or new pets, but more due to owners noticing something is wrong with their pets. Working from home has created a new dimension of veterinary medicine meaning that owners are around their pets more and are potentially taking notice of their habits more regularly. Owners are also now more cognizant of their pets’ medical issues because of this and are taking swifter action to try and seek help.”

Since more animals are in need of medical care, general practices are overrun with cases, which then spills over to the local emergency and urgent care hospitals in the area. Coupled with a shortage of support staff (veterinary nurses/technicians, receptionists, etc) and more people potentially leaving the profession, this scenario has created the perfect storm for the veterinary industry.

The veterinary world is trying its best to keep up with the demand, but we are at a critical juncture right now. Burnout, low pay, mental illness, and even suicide, are becoming larger factors in why professionals are leaving the industry. People are also re-evaluating their current lifestyles and seeing what else might be a better fit. The term “work-life balance” has never been considered more than over the past year.

These doctors say it all. Times are hard and we need to take a deep breath and recognize that our veterinarians are doing the very best they can under unprecedented and very stressful circumstances. Bake them some cupcakes. Say thank you. Offer to buy lunch for their staff. Understand that, like so many others, they are trying to hold their heads above water. Thank you to our veterinarians!