Be kind to your local veterinarian. The pandemic upended pet health care too.

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You may be wondering, why does it take you so long to see the vet last year? Why are waiting times at emergency departments in Anchorage often hours, if not all, of the day? As a local emergency vet, I can confidently tell you that it’s not because we are taking time off, that’s for sure. I wanted to help shed light on the current situation in the veterinary industry, maybe bring some clarity and understanding of why things have changed so much in the last year.

Well like everything happened to COVID-19. When everyone stayed at home, sought shelter and took care of their families, many also decided to have a new pet. The idea fills my heart with warmth and compassion that so many people wanted to open their doors to newly adopted animal sanctuaries, relocated animals, or animals from breeders. The largest animal shelters tracked the number of pets adopted and most reported an increase in adoption rates of nearly 50%. Los Angeles’ Society for Prevention of Cruelty of Animals, a shelter with some of the most animals in the country, actually had waiting lists of people willing to adopt animals and not enough animals to offer to people. At our local Anchorage Animal Care and Control, there were times when dogs were not available for adoption.

Second, at the beginning of the pandemic, we vets were ordered by the government to stop all voting to save on medical equipment and manufacturing. This meant no castrations, castrations, bulk removals, teeth cleaning, etc. Any procedure that was not life threatening was suspended for several months until medical supplies were available again. This created a waiting list of patients who would need these procedures when we could do them again.

Thirdly, the outdoor industry has seen a boom in the last year because anyone can do that safely. Hiking, biking, camping, skiing – all of the outdoor fun Alaska has to offer has been inundated with more visitors and their new pets. As a result, we’ve seen a sharp increase in outdoor injuries in the emergency rooms. Dog fights, allergic reactions, wounds and upset stomachs from curious dogs that eat strange things lying on the ground and on the paths. I can spoil you with stories about things that dogs have eaten to their harm.

So what happens in this situation where the existing clinics are fully booked due to the influx of new patients, patients on the waiting list and procedures and everyone has a new dog and / or a new cat and these animals are sick? To give you an example, just last night in our emergency room we had 32 patients who were examined within seven hours. Thirty-two! And every single patient was seriously ill. Dogs whose faces and mouths were filled with porcupine quills. Dogs with life-threatening anaphylactic allergic reactions. Dogs that found themselves in fierce dog fights and suffered from wounds that required full surgical anesthesia to repair and stabilize them. Cats whose corneas have been pierced by cat fights. Animals hit by cars. Animals with heart failure, unable to breathe and blue when presented to the emergency room. Dogs left outside only to be kicked by an unexpected moose in the yard. Animals with severe ear infections who cannot wait three weeks to be seen by their already overbooked vet. Animals that have been vomiting for 24 hours and cannot keep the food with them.

And each of these pets deserves our full attention; To alleviate suffering, to provide good medication and excellent care. Unfortunately, this is not an exceptional night in the emergency room. In the past year our number of cases has increased exponentially. All vets are still trying to catch up on waiting lists in procedures that were created last summer. We are trying to find space in our diary to fit this new puppy into our already overplaned day. We skip lunch, stay long, and do our best to meet every pet’s needs.

How can you help Your kindness, patience and understanding are what we need. We need to support the vets, technicians, and account managers that we have so we can continue to take care of Anchorage’s pets. When you come to the emergency room, expect us to see cases by severity. So, if your pet is waiting longer than most, it is because your pet is likely to go home with you that night after we can treat them. Other families will not be so lucky. We all work hard to provide the best possible medicine and care for every animal.

A “thank you” goes a long way. Yelling at us because we’re not fast enough doesn’t.

Dr. Ashley Harmon, DVM, is a veterinarian at an Anchorage Animal Emergency Hospital. Her professional interests include pain management, acupuncture, trauma stabilization, and emergency surgery. She lives in Anchorage with her family.