At the beginning of the pandemic, Dr. Monica Mansfield, a veterinarian from Medway, Massachusetts, is struck by a recurring nightmare.
“There were these vulnerable kittens in my basement and I forgot to feed them,” recalls Mansfield. “I would wake up frightened. “Oh my god, the kittens! Where are they?’ I felt like I was missing details and forgetting things that were critical to a case – that were critical to an animal’s life. “
Mansfield took the hint from her subconscious and extended her working hours. She decided to work longer days to keep pace with patient needs, for her own peace of mind.
Veterinarians might recognize Mansfield’s kitten care nightmares as a sign of the times.
Throughout the pandemic, veterinary staff have seen a surge in demand for services, as well as slowed roadside logs, labor shortages and deadlines. The multitude of overlapping circumstances has created a cascade of problems severe enough to threaten the entire fragile ecosystem of veterinary medicine.
For pet owners, this means a fiasco from overcrowded veterinary clinics and long waiting times for appointments. Some were even turned away from veterinary offices with sick animals in tow. All in all, the situation has created something of a perfect storm – causing heartache and frustration for both pet owners and veterinary staff.
“It overwhelmed us very quickly”
Dr. Lisa Kimball, a veterinarian from Hingham, Massachusetts, recalls an incident where an elderly patient – a cat – had a high fever and did not respond to antibiotics. Kimball knew the situation required 24 hour intravenous hydration and monitoring if there was any hope of the cat’s survival. But their GP practice is not set up to treat ICU patients overnight.
Kimball called two different emergency clinics, but neither was able to treat her patient on time. In the end, the cat had to be euthanized.
“I’m not sure the outcome would have been much different if she had got the emergency care she needed,” says Kimball. “But it wasn’t even an option.”
Veterinary emergency capacity has been strained since the early days of the pandemic, when many clinics across the country were only open for urgent cases. For some hospitals it was a period of complete calm. “When I look back on that time, I almost laugh at myself at how stressed I was that we might lose the business,” says Dr. Diana Thomé, a pet veterinarian in Richland, Washington.
Instead, this initial lull caused a ripple effect that continues to this day. Lockdown’s limited services, resulting in shortages in provision. When services were restored, pandemic safety protocols hampered veterinarians’ ability to catch up on lost time. Meanwhile, the residues in the emergency hospitals seeped into the general practitioners’ offices.
“For the first time in my 17-year career, we had times when we stopped accepting new customers,” says Thomé. “This is really difficult for us because it means that an animal walks in many situations without being cared for.”
In the meantime, more and more pet owners have sought out a veterinary emergency service to treat acute complaints such as ear or bladder infections – complaints that are not necessarily life-threatening, but are nonetheless painful for the animal.
“We were overwhelmed very quickly,” says Kasey Littlefield, a veterinary technician who works at emergency clinics in the Los Angeles District. The tide has not yet subsided.
In a job that is subject to enormous stress, the staff at the veterinary clinic could use some consideration from the public. Photo: My Vets Now / PA
Some blame the pet-ownership tips for the ongoing debacle. However, the American Veterinary Medical Association found that pet adoption from animal shelters was lower nationwide in 2020 than it was in five years. A higher proportion of adoptable rescue pets found a home, but due to the closure of animal shelters and fewer pets being given away, fewer animals were available for adoption in the first place.
Labor shortages play a role. Veterinarians, mostly female, had to combine childcare and work; Kimball now only works two days a week to balance the demands at home. Others, burned out due to the high stress of the last 18 months or looking for higher-paying jobs, have reduced their working hours or given up their jobs entirely.
AVMA notes that veterinary staff brain drain is historically high, particularly among veterinarians. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been lucky enough to get a qualified applicant when we advertise a position,” says Thomé.
“I had a customer who threw a milkshake at the windshield”
Amid heightened tension, some veterinarians face aggression from disgruntled pet owners.
“I just had a customer last Saturday who threw a milkshake at the windshield,” says Littlefield, giggling in disbelief.
Sometimes the confrontations become physical. Littlefield recalls an incident last year when she was pushed against the front door of the clinic by a customer whose pet she had to turn away. “I could duck and lock the door behind me,” she says. “That was the first time that a customer got in the face and threatened me so physically.”
Overall, Littlefield says: “There was a lot of anger, a lot of verbal abuse, especially against the front line workers.”
Kimball notes that often it’s the front desk clerk who have to bring bad news to customers – and having to tell people so often that they are waiting for an appointment makes them tired. “People who are usually very happy and cheerful and struggle with the blows – you can see the strain now,” she says.
Liz Hughston, president of the National Veterinary Professionals Union, says veterinary workers in general tend to be stoic about customer outbursts. “People are just ready to accept these things because we love what we do,” she says.
The pressure to increase, however, is taking its toll. Jamie Falzone, executive director of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association, says that in a recent survey, nearly all members of the organization reported a dramatic increase in stress levels. This stress is on top of the psychological challenges veterinary staff has always faced. Prior to the pandemic, veterinarians were at much higher risk of suicide than the general population. While US data on the current state of affairs is limited, some insights can be gained across national borders; In a recent industry-wide survey of Canadian veterinarians, around 26% reported having suicidal thoughts in the first 12 months of the pandemic.
The stress of the job can be traced back to what veterinarians and pet owners have in common: They love their furry and feathered customers and really want to care for them. Veterinarians also empathize with the people who entrust them with the health of their beloved companions.
“We are excited and welcome the pups and the rescue dogs – the new lights in people’s lives,” says Mansfield.
She often reminds her co-workers – and herself – to be patient. “I always try to understand that people come from different places,” she says.
But in an already heavily burdened profession, the veterinary clinic staff could use part of this consideration from the public in return.
“I hope people know we’re here to help,” says Littlefield. “And we appreciate every patience and grace you can give us.”