The number of pet adoptions rose 34% in the spring of 2020, and people welcomed new so-called COVID puppies and kittens.
Combine that with many owners choosing to postpone pet care during the lockdown and you have an industry that is stretched to the brink across Ohio and across the country.
When you call to schedule a basic spa visit for your pet, don’t be surprised if you have to wait three weeks.
“No question about it, this is happening in the state of Ohio, on a national level,” said Jack Advent, executive director of the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association.
“People said, ‘You know, I’m home. Maybe I’ve always wanted a dog or a cat and will now. Someone to keep me company in difficult times. ‘”
So you have an increased number of new pets that need vaccines, heartworm medication, or flea and tick prevention.
Add to this all the pet wellness visits that have been postponed, their owners postponing visits during the lockdown, and there just aren’t enough vets to get around.
Veterinarians are overwhelmed
As soon as you step into For Paws Animal Hospital in North Canton, your ears will be instantly filled with the barking and ringing of phones.
Dr. Jennifer Jellison, who opened the practice about 10 years ago, leads me into a back room of end-to-end kennels full of dogs and cats in need of attention.
A dog is bleeding from his face, an IV bag is hanging in his kennel.
“Basically most of them came in today and called and said I had to get on as soon as possible,” Jellison said. “And then there are these.”
She holds up a pile of messages about other animals in need of care. You may or may not get in.
“So just to give you a taste of what my day will be like. And then I see patients every 15 minutes until 6:00 a.m. So there are probably 30 more that I’ll see on top, ”said Jellison.
She will see around 45 patients in a day, versus the 25-30 animals she would see on an average day before the pandemic.
“So we see a lot more. But more importantly, I could have got them all in a year ago. I can’t bring her in. I don’t know where to put them, “she said.” I honestly don’t know how to say no to them because we are naturally compassionate and perfectionists. So you want to help them, but there are also 45 problems that you have to solve. “
Dr. Jennifer Jellison keeps one of her patients at For Paws Veterinary Hospital. [Mark Arehart / WKSU]
The labor supply chain
Dr. Roy Moore is the Dean of Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, one of the largest veterinary schools in the country.
He said the workload has increased but the workforce has not.
“And that just means longer days, more appointments,” he said.
Even before the pandemic, Moore said applications to veterinary schools have increased, but many programs don’t have the resources or the ability to grow their class size at the same pace.
“I don’t think it will be possible to remedy the veterinary shortage in a short period of time because of the pipeline and the time required. You know, if someone goes to veterinary school this fall, it will take them four years to graduate, ”said Moore.
In addition, the veterinary technicians, the people who ensure that the practice runs smoothly and efficiently, are burning out at a rapid pace.
“About 50% of veterinary technicians or zookeepers actually leave the profession in the first five to six years,” he said.
According to Moore, technicians are chronically underpaid and underutilized, often blessed with basic tasks.
He said veterinarians need to trust their technicians to do more.
“The best way to use a vet for your practice is because you can see more cases and be more productive and profitable, which means that hopefully you can also deal with the second problem, increasing vet wages,” he said.
Mental health care for veterinarians
Another priority is for veterinarians to prioritize mental health care in their profession.
It’s something Moore’s program at Ohio State has made a top priority.
“There is a mandatory seven-week program called Mind Strong, which is basically a resilience and coping skills program,” said Moore.
They also have two full-time counselors for local students as well as a part-time psychiatrist.
“(It’s) hard to de-stigmatize mental health and let people know that mental health is in some ways no different from, say, diabetes. It’s something you have to manage, ”said Moore.
Dr. Jessica Harriman, owner of Happy Tails Veterinary Clinic in Johnstown, said her profession has long struggled with high suicide rates, depression, and anxiety.
“I would use the word rampant in my job. I have no hesitation in saying I have dealt with this personally, ”she said.
Harriman believes that most vets have trouble saying no to overwork and exhaustion.
“Because helping the animal is really important to us, and certainly when it’s sick or needs treatment, it’s very difficult to say, ‘No, I’m full today,'” she said.
In the long run, she said, taking in as many patients as possible is not the answer to this veterinarian shortage.
“Sometimes we pack it up and see as many as possible during the day. If you add more, it will be less quality care that you can provide to each of your planned patients, ”said Harriman.
Her practice includes roadside visits, telemedicine for some non-emergency services, and clear workloads and limits for staff.
They even have a drive-up window for drug collection, just like a pharmacy.
“You need to be able to take care of yourself and your co-workers or you won’t be there to look after the pets you want to look after,” said Harriman.
She sees the introduction of extended schedules with a mix of online, drop-off and personal pet care becoming the industry standard.
It’s a world where you could potentially use an app to message or photo your vet and have someone call you back, just like many human health systems are already using.
“While this is not the ideal time because of all the other challenges, I think this will inherently play a role in how we rethink our business, right?” She said.
Play the waiting game
But pretty much everyone I spoke to said the same thing: it will take time for this industry to catch up.
Until then, Jellison urges pet owners to be patient and respectful.
“Well, when (your pet) is healthy, be ready to wait the three weeks. Try not to get confused. Know that everyone is, ”she said. “When it’s not healthy, the emergency rooms always take people in. So don’t wait just because you can’t find a regular veterinarian. The emergency rooms will see you at some point, and just like a human, you may have to wait six or eight hours and your pet should be worth it. “
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