Hamilton veterinarian clinics ‘overwhelmed’ with requests, vet shortages

Ontario animal care services have been dealing with a combination of a shortage of veterinarians and an influx of people with new pets during the pandemic, and the Hamilton area has been no exception to the crisis.

Sarah Pearman, a registered veterinary technician at the Stone Church Animal Clinic, said the pandemic puppy trend has been real.

“People are spending more time at home still, and then also looking for more companionship when having to be in isolation … and just having more time on their hands to spend more time with their pets. I think that’s really impacted how many people are getting new dogs, especially new puppies.”

Pearman said the clinic’s rise in patients at the start of the pandemic forced them to cut their services for a while.

“We were quite short-staffed [mid-2020]we only had one vet working at that time, and because of the restrictions, we had to close our clinic to normal procedures … for a temporary time, so getting caught up with all that was extremely hard when the restrictions were lifted.”

She also said that, even though the clinic has been managing the vet shortage, they’re still having a hard time finding supporting staff, all while the patient influx continues to rise.

“We have people calling every day looking for a new vet or transferring vets looking for second opinions with new puppies and kittens,” she said.

Owner of Chedoke Animal Hospital Dr. Erica Heinen said the shortage may have also been caused by the strain of the job.

“I think there’s just a lot of burnout and it’s not something that [anything] can prepare you for as far as getting into the real world, so I think there’s a lot of mental stress that veterinarians face, burnout with euthanasia and things like that as well.”

dr Heinen said her clinic had an ad out for a vet for the past two years with no luck.

“We hired a new grad and she didn’t [last],” said Dr. Heinen, “I think she was here for three months at most, and it was just, like, the mental fatigue, it got to her.”

“I think there needs to be a bit of a discussion about mental health and just also the proper treatment of people in general,” she added.

‘Just couldn’t keep up’

Pearman’s workplace was forced to turn away new patients for a while.

“Quite a few times we had to stop taking on new patients because of the fact we just couldn’t keep up with the amount of appointments that were being requested and our existing clientele already was over what our single vet could do at the time. “

Pearman said, however, they are in a position now where they can accept new patients, but at a limited capacity.

“New puppies and kittens we are taking on because we have [a] new vet that started recently, but [for patients being referred or transferred]we are still recommending they stick with their regular clinic because we can’t keep up with the amount of clients looking to transfer from other clinics as well.”

Stone Church Animal Clinic is among the Hamilton animal care service providers feeling the crunch of a vet shortage and spike in people with pets during the pandemic. (Aura Carreño Rosas/CBC)

Emily Lauzon works as a veterinarian technician at a clinic in Ancaster. She said they have not been able to take in new patients since 2020.

“We receive at least 5-10 calls a day from people looking to become new clients, we would consider that an overwhelming amount,” she said. However, she added, “while there is a shortage of veterinarians, it has been ongoing long before the pandemic.”

She also recommended soon-to-be pet owners to find a vet “before making the final decision to add another permanent member to your family.”

A ‘scary’ experience for one pet owner

Emergency clinics have been impacted as well. Amber Wereley, an animal care assistant for the Hamilton Region Emergency Vet Clinic, said they’ve had to prioritize those pets that require urgent care.

“Critical patients are seen as top priority, which may affect stable patients assessment time. DVMs [Doctors of Veterinary Medicine] can only take on so many patients at a time which can prevent our facility from accepting more patients once the DVM is at their capacity,” she said.

Hamilton resident Charlene DaSilva experienced that crunch when seeking emergency care for her dog, Ava.

Although she has not had any problems finding a vet, she did go through a scary night after monitoring what looked like a skin tag on Ava’s arm.

Her vet had told her to bring her back if the growth grew.

“It got bigger and bigger and bigger and then it burst and I immediately called the vet because it was bleeding,” DaSilva recalled.

Charlene DaSilva is shown with her two dogs, Ava and Gio, during a visit to a pumpkin patch. (Submitted by Charlene DaSilva)

However, her vet couldn’t take her in immediately.

“I had to call all sorts of vets from here in Hamilton to Ancaster, Burlington and Brantford before I was able to find a vet that would actually see her.”

DaSilva said she had to wait until the next day for care.

“Finally, I got into my own vet the following morning and Ava had to have a quick, minor surgery to remove [the growth] and to stitch her up. It was a little bit scary because I couldn’t get anywhere,” she said.