Chris Colohan and his family searched far and wide for a new dog this spring and found few options amid a pandemic-induced surge in pet adoptions. They eventually adopted Vanta, a cute 2-year-old Golden Retriever mix, from a rescue group north of Sacramento in May, but soon realized that finding him wouldn’t be their only challenge.
After bringing Vanta to her home in Palo Alto, Colohan called Adobe Animal Hospital in Los Altos to schedule an exam for her new pup. It turned out that the veterinary clinic was not accepting new customers because of so many appointment requests during the pandemic. The second vet he called had no vacancies for two months.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” said Colohan, who finally found an appointment on a friend’s recommendation.
In the peninsula, pet owners struggle to find medical care for their animals, are often turned away or face long waits when trying to make an appointment at one of the dozen of the area’s dozen veterinary clinics. According to veterinarians, the problems stem from the rise in pet adoptions during the pandemic, coupled with nationwide staffing shortages. Health precautions also contributed to the delays, as many vets switched to roadside appointments last year, which took more time.
The phones at Whipple Avenue Pet Hospital in Redwood City rang almost non-stop while pet owners combed the area for available appointments, veterinarian Alvin Hong said.
“During the pandemic … we had so many new puppies and new patients – it’s crazy,” said Hong.
Appointments at Whipple are currently booked for about a month, with limited first-come, first-served emergency care spots available for more urgent needs, Hong said.
With a similar influx of patients, Adobe Animal Hospital decided in May to stop accepting new customers and only visit emergencies. The restrictions were an attempt to ensure existing customers get appointments faster, even though wait times are generally still a week or more, said Cindy Biby, hospital experiences manager at Adobe, whose job includes addressing public concerns.
“We don’t love all of the changes we had to make,” Biby said. “Unfortunately, at the moment, they are necessary to survive and continue to provide veterinary care.”
Karen Ewart, who lives in Palo Alto, is one of the animal owners who have raised objections to Biby. Ewart, a long-time Adobe customer, was frustrated after struggling to schedule an appointment for her dog, Chloe, who she believed had whooping cough.
“I now rely on Adobe,” said Ewart. “You come to count on certain things.”
After getting into trouble at Adobe, Ewart tried calling about 20 other vets but kept encountering similar problems. She ended up on the phone with Biby, who told her vets that they were facing a staff shortage while demand for her services increased.
A number of Adobe employees have moved from the area during the pandemic while others have reduced their hours, Biby said in an interview. Eight doctors left within four months.
Turnover was particularly difficult because of the widespread shortage of veterinarians and support staff before the pandemic.
“The workforce challenges are job-wide, nationwide. It’s everywhere,” said Stephanie La Plume, emergency department director at MedVet Mountain View.
MedVet has continuously tried to hire employees during the pandemic. A sometimes invisible part of the workforce challenge, LaPlume said, is that the veterinary profession consists mostly of women who dropped out of the workforce in large numbers during the pandemic due to disproportionate childcare duties. Burnout has also been an issue as veterinarians try to keep up with the influx of new patients.
“We worked a long time to help all of these pets,” said La Plume.
Pet adoption has increased dramatically during the pandemic. When Pets In Need, the animal service provider for Palo Altos, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, had to close its animal shelters last March, employees were able to find around 150 animals for all of them within two days, said managing director Al Mollica.
As the pandemic progressed, Mollica said there had been an “astounding” number of adoptions despite health precautions that resulted in a cumbersome adoption process.
“It was pretty extraordinary that people struggled through the bureaucracy to adopt these animals,” said Mollica.
Almost 1 in 5 households across the country contracted a dog or cat during the pandemic, according to a May ASPCA poll.
Chris Hurtt’s family belonged to this group. Palo Alto residents brought home Baker, a golden retriever puppy, in May. When Hurtt Baker made an appointment at the veterinary clinic for her other dog to go to, the earliest opening was two weeks away and required a different doctor.
This wasn’t the first time Hurtt struggled with getting veterinary care during the pandemic. Last summer, the family had to travel at the last minute to visit relatives. Before her dog could be put in a kennel, he had to get a vaccination. Hurtt had to call at least five different vets to find someone to give the injection within the next few days.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Hurtt, who has owned dogs for more than a decade.
Delays are not just an issue with preventive care like vaccinations. Emergency visits also take longer. The emergency room at MedVet, which focuses on emergency and specialty care, is “busier than ever,” said La Plume.
“We have seen so many more patients and have longer waiting times,” she said. “It’s unprecedented.”
Before the pandemic, waiting times in the emergency room were rarely longer than three hours, according to La Plume. Today, four to six hours is relatively common for pets in a stable condition. Sometimes it is extended to eight hours. In certain cases, MedVet has discontinued the admission of pets to the emergency room, with the exception of animals in critical condition.
“People are frustrated,” said La Plume. “They are used to going to the emergency room and being seen pretty quickly, and now it takes a long time to get everything stable.”
Part of the reason for the increase is because delays with general practitioners resulted in people coming to the emergency room instead, she said.
In some cases, the pandemic disruptions have had tragic consequences. Last summer and fall, MedVet saw the typical number of dogs infected with canine parvovirus double to triple, La Plume said. Parvovirus is often fatal if left untreated, but it is preventable with vaccination.
With so many people getting pandemic puppies but unable to make vaccination appointments, more dogs become infected with the highly contagious virus.
“These are some of the worst cases we see in the hospital,” she said. “It breaks our hearts to see puppies so sick and some of them die despite our best efforts.”
Pets in Need works to ensure animals are vaccinated by running free or low-cost vaccination clinics. During the pandemic, the demand for these events increased “quite significantly,” Mollica said. A recent clinic had such a high turnout that staff had to turn people away.
Some of the demand is coming from people struggling financially during the pandemic and turning to the nonprofit animal shelter to provide affordable care. Pets in Need has also seen a great deal of interest in the free and inexpensive surgeries.
Ultimately, the local vets agreed that the way out of the current backlog will not be short and that more staff will have to be found, which has proven difficult.
“It will just take time to have more staff because there are a lot of new pets and they are not going anywhere,” said La Plume. “I assume that our number of cases will be high for a long time to come.”