Cloquet veterinary clinic adapts to unprecedented challenges – Cloquet Pine Journal

CLOQUET — The pandemic-driven rush to bring home new pets has fueled a host of challenges for veterinary clinics trying to meet the increased demand for their services.

A recent study conducted by the American Pet Products Association showed that, for the first time in the US, 70% of households now own a pet, with the pandemic fueling the rise in pet acquisitions, according to the study.

A result of this trend has been a whirlwind of new appointments that clinics, like Cloquet Animal Hospital in Carlton County, is working tirelessly to accommodate the influx of patients.

“I’m seeing three times the amount of appointments that I would typically see on a given day, so I’m working longer and harder,” Dr. Christine Wickenheiser of Cloquet Animal Hospital shared. “In theory, it’s conceptually a good problem to have too much business, but it’s really not, because it’s difficult to give appropriate care when you have such a short little window of opportunity, and so many pets need to be seen.”

Cloquet Animal Hospital, like many clinics, has undergone major changes to its daily operations in order to limit the spread of COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, Cloquet Animal Hospital has maintained a “curbside” model as a way to limit the number of pet owners inside the building at one time.

A sign in the locked front door of the Cloquet Animal Hospital on Tuesday, Feb. 15, informs clients that the business is doing curbside rather than walk-in business due to COVID-19.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

The added steps have contributed to the greater workload, which Wickenheiser and staff at Cloquet Animal Hospital are trying to catch up with.

“There was a learning curve, which kind of delayed our turnover of appointments at first and then now we just have this backlog of wellness appointments,” Wickenheiser said.

Currently, the clinic is not accepting new patients due to the long list of appointments that has the clinic booked up for months in advance. Wickenheiser shared that emergency surgery openings are not available until late spring or early summer.

In the wake of the longer hours and added stressors, burnout among staff has become all too common, according to Cassie Panning of the Minnesota Association of Veterinary Technicians.

“The increase demand for pets to be seen is driving some veterinary professionals to try and see more cases which is leading to longer work days and ultimately staff burnout,” Panning said in an email to the Pine Journal. “There is a level of compassion that comes with this job, and when we are unable to help it takes its toll on us both physically and mentally.”

Caring for animals at Cloquet Animal Hospital.

Veterinary technician Lindsay Bacon comforts a dog waking up after surgery Tuesday, Feb. 15, at Cloquet Animal Hospital.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

While many patients have been sympathetic to the challenges faced by veterinary staff members, Wickenheiser shared that a segment of the population has been more aggressive toward technicians and reception staff, exacerbating burnout-related issues.

“It’s not something they’re doing to make tons of money, and it’s a lot of work,” Wickenheiser said. “Usually, people who are drawn to an animal field are very sensitive people, and so now we’ve got all these people who are working way harder than they previously had but being treated unkind, (so) we have burnout.”

Cloquet Animal Hospital owner Dr. Jennifer Shepherd has helped alleviate staff burnout by listening to the needs of the clinic’s technicians, in addition to providing them with time during the early afternoon to step away and re-focus before going back to work.

Caring for animals at Cloquet Animal Hospital.

Veterinary technicians Lydia Aasen and Samantha Aho prepare a canine patient for surgery Tuesday, Feb. 15, at Cloquet Animal Hospital.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

The clinic has also stopped taking phone calls between 1 and 2 pm in order to give them time to catch up from the morning with patient care.

“(Dr. Shepherd) has gone kind of above and beyond to try to maintain morale in the face of what’s happening,” Wickenheiser said. “Many veterinary clinics have had to post signs saying please keep your emotional baggage at the door type of stuff … but our employer has built staff morale nicely during this to kind of maintain staff.”

Vet launches pet advice app

Caring for animals at Cloquet Animal Hospital.

Veterinarian Christine Wickenheiser.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

In hopes of aiding other clinics facing many of the same issues, Wickenheiser has launched her own subscription-based pet advice service called Ask Vet Christine.

Long after Wickenheiser leaves her office, the work often continues well into the night for the 20-year veterinarian as she answers countless pet questions from family members to distant acquaintances.

Out of the constant requests for advice came an idea that Wickenheiser has turned into a business, which launched earlier this month.

The service, which offers monthly or annual subscriptions, provides, “ongoing professional advice and support, triage recommendations, wellness care, and product recommendations for dogs, cats, pocket pets, and non-poisonous reptiles,” according to the Ask Vet Christine website .

The service is not intended to take the place of routine vet visits, the website goes on to state.

“If it’s a true emergency, this isn’t the format for you. You should just go to the emergency clinic,” Wickenheiser explained. “This is for like (sort of) urgent questions, or even just, “Hey, my daughter got a dog and she’s a first (time) pet owner … and they can ask what should I feed my dog? What kind of vaccines does my dog ​​need?”

Users of the service can ask questions over the phone or via text during after-hours, or on weekends and holidays. The advice, in turn, is simplified for the average pet owner.

“The catchphrase for my business is (it’s), ‘Like having a vet as a friend.’ Because I’m not going to give you advice in doctor verbiage,” Wickenheiser. “I’m going to tell you the bare bones of this is what’s realistic. In layman’s terms, this is why your dog is behaving the way he is.”

Ask Vet Christine offers a way to monetize the advice she had already been providing for years, while also aiding in lessening the load on clinics.

Caring for animals at Cloquet Animal Hospital.

Veterinary technician Lydia Aasen helps veterinarian Christine Wickenheiser prepare for surgery Tuesday, Feb. 15, at Cloquet Animal Hospital.

Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune

“If I can answer a question by looking at a picture of a cut or a burn or something on the pet’s body … and say, ‘You know what, that’s not an emergency tonight, you can wait until tomorrow to see your regular veterinarian. ‘ Not only did I help the emergency clinic out by lessening their load, I helped that pet owner out by lessening their concern and anxiety for their pet,” Wickenheiser said.

Aside from minor technology-related difficulties for some users, Wickenheiser shared that the reaction to the service has been overwhelmingly positive.

“They’re just so concerned about their pets for things, in my mind because it’s my everyday, isn’t that big of a concern, but they were really, really concerned,” she said. “I was able to give them peace of mind very quickly, and my understanding is they’re finding a lot of great value in the subscription.”