COVID-19 pet boom has veterinarians backlogged, burned out

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida – During the darkest periods of the pandemic, Dr. Diona Krahn organized a puppy festival that was overrun by new four-legged patients.

She usually got three or four new puppies a week, but between shelter adoptions and private purchases, the 2020 COVID-19 pet boom brought five to seven new customers a day to her practice in Raleigh, North Carolina. Many are first-time pet owners.

Like many vets around the country, she also sees more sick animals. To meet demand, veterinarians surveyed by The Associated Press have extended their hours, hired additional staff and refused to admit new patients, and they still can’t keep up. Burnout and fatigue are such a problem that some practices hire consultants to support their exhausted staff.

“Everyone is currently working overloaded,” said Krahn, who added the evening hours last year.

According to a COVID-19 pulse study by the American Pet Products Association, around 12.6 million US households bought new pets last year after the pandemic was declared in March 2020.

Veterinarians were already struggling to meet pre-pandemic demand as veterinary schools were unable to provide enough doctors and technicians to fill the void.

Krahn left her North Carolina practice three months ago and now runs nine veterinary clinics and clinics in Utah and Idaho as part of the Pathway Vet Alliance.

“All of my practices are booked out several weeks in advance. Customers actually call and make appointments at multiple locations, “and even resort to emergency facilities,” she said.

Banfield Pet Hospital, one of the largest national providers of preventive veterinary medicine, had around half a million more animal visits in 2020 than in 2019. And its telehealth service more than doubled from March to the end of last year.

Another group of primary care veterinary clinics with 110 facilities in the United States, Thrive reported a 20% increase in demand during the pandemic. Both repeated a common refrain – as people spent more time with their pets, they were more in tune with their ailments – big and small -.

“COVID left many people powerless over those who were closest to them,” said Claire Pickens, senior director at Thrive, “but the only thing they could control was taking care of their pet.”

Clinics have been forced to streamline their patients by filling out forms online or over the phone, as hiring additional staff is often not an option.

“The industry is growing so fast that it cannot fill all of the roles required to keep pace with the increased demand for services,” said Pickens.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterinary positions are projected to grow 16% through 2029, nearly four times the average for most other occupations. Veterinary medicine jobs are expected to grow by nearly 20% over the next five years.

“Despite the active search for additional staff, we still have few staff,” said Dr. Katarzyna Ferry, Veterinary Specialty Hospital of Palm Beach Gardens.

Verg, a 24-hour emergency and specialty hospital in Brooklyn, reported a 40% increase in emergency care since the pandemic began. That also meant more pet hospital stays, stressing various specialties such as surgery and cardiology.

“The demand continues to grow,” said Dr. Brett Levitzke, Chief Medical Officer of Verg.

“Fear of the unknown in the pandemic leads to more intense emotions among our customers,” said Levitzke. He has seen outbursts and threats from pet owners with expletive language, as well as love-breakouts with cards and baked goods. After the strain on the staff was felt, they hired a compassionate fatigue specialist to assist.

“Unfortunately, compassionate fatigue, anxiety and depression plagued our profession, and the pandemic has certainly lifted it to another level,” said Levitzke.

Krahn said she sold her North Carolina practice to Pathway and later took on an administrative role at the company to provide practical and emotional support to veterinarians, knowing firsthand about the toll.

“As vets, it’s our job to take care of us, but we also take care of people through their animals,” said Krahn. “Doctors and support teams struggle to take care of themselves so they can continue to do so.”