COVID-19 pet growth has veterinarians backlogged, burned out

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) – During the darkest periods of the pandemic, Dr. Diona Krahn organized a puppy festival that was flooded with new four-legged patients.

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

Like many vets around the country, she’s seen more sick animals. To meet demand, veterinarians interviewed by The Associated Press have extended hours, hired additional staff and refused to admit new patients, and they still can’t keep up. Burnout and fatigue are so worrying that some practices hire counselors to assist their tired employees.

“At this point everyone is working beyond their capacity,” 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 U.S. households got a new pet last year after the pandemic was declared in March 2020.

Meanwhile, fewer people were giving up their pets in 2020 so they needed ongoing care, experts said. And as people worked from home and spent more time with their pets, they had more opportunities to notice bumps, limps, and other illnesses that could normally go untreated.

Veterinarians were already struggling to meet pre-pandemic demand, and veterinary schools failed to equip enough doctors and technicians to fill the void.

Krahn left her North Carolina practice three months ago and now oversees nine veterinary and animal 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 multiple locations and schedule appointments, ”she said.

Banfield Pet Hospital, one of the largest national providers of preventive veterinary medicine, recorded approximately half a million more pet visits in 2020 than in 2019. From March to the end of last year, the volume of its telemedicine service more than doubled.

Another group of primary care veterinarians with 110 facilities in the US, Thrive saw demand rise 20% during the pandemic. Both repeated a common refrain – as people spent more time with their pets, they became more attuned to their ailments – big and small.

“With COVID, many people became 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 as patients have had to pre-fill forms online or over the phone as hiring additional staff is often not an option.

“The industry is growing at a rate that does not 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 of most other occupations. The number of veterinary technicians is expected to grow by nearly 20% over the next five years.

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

Verg, a 24-hour emergency and specialty hospital in Brooklyn, reported a 40% increase in emergency care since the pandemic began. It also means more pet hospital stays, stressing different specialties like surgery and cardiology.

“Demand continues to grow,” said Dr. Brett Levitzke, Verg chief medical officer, who leads to extreme fatigue in a profession known for its generous workers.

“The fear of the unknown with the pandemic leads to more intense emotions among our customers,” said Levitzke. He has seen explosive outbreaks and threats from animal owners and also love affections with cards and baked goods. After the strain on the staff was felt, they hired a compassionate fatigue specialist to assist.

“Unfortunately, compassion fatigue, anxiety and depression have already plagued our profession, and the pandemic has certainly taken it to another level,” Levitzke said.

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 veterinarians, it’s our job to take care of people, but we also take care of people through their animals,” said Krahn. “Doctors and support teams struggle to take care of themselves in a way that they can continue to do.”

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