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Pet owners who wish to have their pet neutered or neutered at one of the Santa Barbara Humane clinics are required to book appointments almost two months in advance due to a nationwide veterinarian shortage that has affected the Santa Barbara district since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“The nationwide shortage of vets is really limiting the services we can provide,” Katie Marrie, Santa Barbara Humane’s chief veterinary officer, told Noozhawk. “To book a castration or neutering in Santa Barbara, we actually book out until the end of January, and the further away the dates are, the more difficult it is to get people here.”
Five veterinary positions on the two Santa Barbara Humane campuses are vacant, Marrie said, and by some estimates there are more than 5,000 veterinary positions across the country.
Marrie has been traveling from Santa Barbara to the Santa Maria Campus every day since July to help patients in both areas.
“We were lucky in Santa Maria because of the technical staff at this clinic, we don’t have anyone, but we don’t have a vet,” she said. “That made it a bit difficult for sure. That means I can’t help people so quickly. I don’t live in Santa Maria. “
Marrie said there were a variety of reasons for the vets shortage in Santa Barbara, including the general high turnover in the field.
A shortage of veterinarians in Santa Barbara means some pets may have to wait months to be seen. (Courtesy photo of Santa Barbara Humane)
“I think we have a little more turnover in the shelters because we are dealing with some difficult issues,” said Marrie. “Like behavior problems with an animal – sometimes it’s really difficult for our employees.”
Marrie said it was difficult to hire people because Santa Barbara County is between the sea and the mountains, not to mention the high property prices.
“Most people who are hired in the entry-level position find it very difficult to live here, so they commute from a great distance – which is really difficult for them – and they may switch to find a place close by to live” said Marie. “I think during this pandemic everyone has really reassessed what they’re willing to do and I don’t think they want to sit in the car for two hours to get to work.”
Marrie also noted how some of the changes made during the novel coronavirus pandemic affected the number of patients who can visit the clinics. At the start of the pandemic, the clinic had to wait for everyone in their cars, so the staff needed more time to get to the car, sanitize everything, and go back, Marrie explained.
Before the pandemic, pet vaccination appointments were typically 10 minutes, but the pandemic doubled that time to 20 minutes, she added.
A September study by the American Veterinary Medical Association found that the same changes were made to comply with COVID-19 safety protocols – such as moving to roadside care, dividing staff into rotating teams, and disinfecting exam rooms between Visits – also reduced the efficiency and productivity of the team.
“Now I’d say we’re definitely getting more into the swing of things, but a lot of the people we’ve hired are generally very new to the field,” said Marrie. “We love getting new graduates who are genuinely interested in animals. We see ourselves as a campus and love to train people, but that also takes more time. “
The Santa Maria campus used to accept walk-ins, but Marrie said that during the pandemic it just wasn’t “appropriate” to keep a lot of people waiting in the waiting room.
“So when an appointment is really quick, there really isn’t another person in line we can help just because they were there,” said Marrie. “We also have a significant number of no-shows no matter what we do. When that happens, we just wait in the clinic and there is no one else to help. “
This is not just a problem Santa Barbara Humane faces. Marrie said it was harder for people to see other veterinarians and emergency clinics as well. When emergency clinics or private practices have waits of a week or two, pet owners have brought their animals to Santa Barbara Humane, Marrie said.
“In the past, if you don’t get an appointment, it was common for you to go to an emergency hospital – some kind of emergency care,” Marrie said. “We’re seeing more and more people come here to use us for emergency care because they have nowhere else to go.”
The American Veterinary Medical Association study also found that veterinary practices were essential businesses for the first few months of the pandemic, seeing only urgent cases, resulting in a significant backlog in wellness visits.
“When the restrictions were relaxed, patients returned to routine check-ups and screening,” the study said. “In the meantime, customers were spending more time at home with their pets, which enabled them to more easily identify health problems and think more broadly about veterinary care.”
The Santa Barbara campus has been offering research on topics like ear infections since September, Marrie said, and she noticed that people are glad there is another way to see their pet.
One of the “really great” things about Santa Barbara Humane is that there are so many customers who give money to help animals get the care they need, Marrie said.
“Being able to help these animals because customers give us money is just so rewarding,” she said. “I don’t have to make a tough decision about an animal that might only need a few hundred dollars to help it.”