Puppy boom, staff shortages press South Shore veterinarians

HINGHAM – Vet Lisa Kimball said something happened last week that she had never seen before.

VCA South Shore Animal Hospital sent a fax to Old Derby Animal Hospital in Hingham, where she works, with a simple message: Stop sending us animals today. We cannot accept emergency visits.

“That’s never happened before,” Kimball said.

And it’s not just the VCA. Thousands of South Shore residents have become first-time pet owners amid the pandemic, and local animal hospitals are feeling the strain. At some, appointments are being booked for more than a month as veterinarians and techs – who aren’t immune to the staffing shortages hitting the industry across the country – are struggling to keep up.

Hingham veterinarian Lisa Kimball talks about the strain the veterinary services have faced over the past two years.
Greg Derr/The Patriot Ledger

Kimball said she was grateful for how Old Derby was handling the strain, but nonetheless veterinary clinics are feeling demand for their services.

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“We will feel that for many years to come,” she said.

Vet appointments are delayed, waiting lists are getting longer

You don’t have to be a vet to see the strains the puppy boom is putting on clinics and veterinary clinics.

Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association President-elect Dr. Monica Mansfield said demand pushed appointments a few weeks later than they would normally be. Regular wellness checkups can take longer and clients may be placed on ever-growing waiting lists as veterinary clinics try to ensure they have enough time each day to see emergency visits as well.

“We absolutely bend over backwards and stand on our heads” to get every patient in,” Mansfield said. “Non-urgent things are put off for many days in many cases.”

Hingham vet Dr.  Lisa Kimball with 3-year-old Doodle Kensington.Hingham vet Dr. Lisa Kimball with 3-year-old Doodle Kensington.
Greg Derr/The Patriot Ledger

Veterinary clinics, which treat emergencies and in some cases perform surgeries, are also feeling the pressure. Hospitals were busy early in the pandemic as customers brought their pets for routine services like ear infection treatments that would otherwise be performed by local clinics.

Hospitals began using a system of triage, prioritizing emergencies over routine services. Kimball said she knows that some days customers will sit in hospital parking lots with their animals for up to 10 hours, waiting to be seen.

At many veterinary clinics, animals whose cases do not reach emergency status may be placed on an alert list and have to wait. On a recent Monday, Kimball’s on-call list had just two patients, which she described as “a good day,” compared to some days when that number swells to 10.

“Don’t send us anything,” Kimball said, paraphrasing the fax Old Derby had received. “We can’t, we can’t. And that would be like our South Shore Hospital saying, ‘No emergencies, your (GP) needs to see you if you fell out of a tree and you have a broken leg.’ “

A veterinarian holds a calm little dog as he prepares for an exam.A veterinarian holds a calm little dog as he prepares for an exam.
Getty Images

The demand for veterinary clinics grew gradually

The veterinary crisis didn’t begin immediately when the pandemic began, said Kimball, who also serves on the board of directors of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association.

First, the clinics saw a pause in many of their services. The world didn’t know what kind of medical care people might immediately need, so zookeepers diverted their services to reserving supplies for human patients, she said.

Vet Lisa Kimball“I’ve been a vet for 16 years and it’s just unprecedented.”

“We weren’t sure what was going to happen over the next few months,” Kimball said. “All we knew was that there was a crisis. So it was: conserve, conserve, conserve.”

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At the same time, the pandemic has made life difficult for family caregivers, especially working mothers. At veterinary clinics, which Kimball described as a “women’s industry,” some doctors have had to reduce their office hours. Working from home where possible has become the new norm and, for many, a new necessity.

Kimball and her husband, who also works at The Old Derby in Hingham, reduced their office days when their children started distance learning and adjusted to their new work-from-home lifestyle.

In the spring of 2021, one year after the outbreak of the pandemic, the puppy boom began.

“It hasn’t really slowed down,” Kimball said. “Maybe a little, but we’re still seeing a lot of puppies, more puppies than ever. I’ve been a vet for 16 years and it’s just unprecedented.”

Kensington, a 3-year-old Doodle, is being examined by Hingham vet Lisa Kimball at Old Derby Animal Hospital on Friday January 14, 2022.Kensington, a 3-year-old Doodle, is being examined by Hingham vet Lisa Kimball at Old Derby Animal Hospital on Friday January 14, 2022.
Greg Derr/The Patriot Ledger

Puppy ownership is on the rise amid pandemic

The ASPCA said nearly one in five households — about 23 million nationwide — have adopted or bought a new cat or dog since the start of the COVID pandemic. The vast majority of these pets – 85 to 90% – have not been relinquished, despite initial concerns from some local animal shelters, and their owners are instead seeking veterinary care for their new furry friends.

With a new puppy come new responsibilities, medical needs, and health screenings that soon overwhelmed the industry. Veterinarians have switched between in-person and in-vehicle services as government regulations change, delivering diagnoses to clients either in exam rooms or over the phone to pet parents sitting outside in their cars.

Curbside Services gave vet clinics a chance to keep working, but Kimball said talking to customers in the exam room with the pet can be beneficial.

“Everything just works smoother when we’re in person,” she said.

Tessie is greeted by Dr.  KC Horigan from Norwell Veterinary Hospital.Tessie is greeted by Dr. KC Horigan from Norwell Veterinary Hospital.
Gary Higgins/The Patriot Ledger

Lack of staff leads to burnout among veterinarians, technicians

Kimball and Mansfield agreed that demand for veterinary services is being eroded by the staffing shortages affecting veterinarians as well as other industries.

Vets and their staff are calling in sick or having to quarantine due to COVID exposure, reducing the number of doctors available in busy clinics. When someone calls, other vets step up to make more appointments, which Mansfield says is unsustainable in the long run.

The vet Dr.  Hingham's Lisa Kimball talks about the strain the veterinary services have faced over the past two years.The vet Dr. Hingham’s Lisa Kimball talks about the strain the veterinary services have faced over the past two years.
Greg Derr/The Patriot Ledger

“We need to know where to push ourselves,” she said, with the caveat of knowing when to take a break to avoid burnout. “There is enormous pressure on the employees”

She compared the workload of veterinarians to Sisyphus, the ancient Greek mythological legend. He was cursed to push a heavy boulder to the top of a mountain every day for eternity, only to watch it fall back to the bottom of the mountain every night.

No matter how many clients see vets, there is still more work to be done.

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Anecdotal surveys of members of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association show that about 80% of respondents said they’ve experienced a slight or dramatic increase in both case count and stress over the past 18 months, said Executive Director Jamie Falzone. Like other industries during the pandemic, some veterinarians in the state are leaving the industry to find work elsewhere, Kimball said.

“We’re so skinny that we’re trying to get our normal jobs and normal excellent care,” she said. “We can’t, I can’t, the job can’t always be everything for everyone. … I’m trying to find comfort that I can still reach out to families and animals.”

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Reach Alex Weliever at aweliever@patriotledger.com.

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Published January 24, 2022 at 10:04 UTC
Updated 24 Jan 2022 at 10:25 UTC

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