As a part time dog walker and trainer, I started noticing the pet pandemic phenomena early on. The mission “Stay at home, stay healthy” started on March 23, 2020 and in April I received a lot of calls from new puppy parents who needed help with newly adopted dogs.
Unfortunately, as part of Governor Inslee’s step-by-step approach to reopening Washington State, I was not allowed to work as a dog handler until May 1 and as a dog trainer until June. It was becoming increasingly clear that this was a problem.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) recently released data from a survey that shows that since the COVID-19 crisis began, nearly one in five households has acquired a cat or dog, which is roughly 23 million Americans would correspond to households based on the 2019 US census.
Everyone in the pet industry feared that this sudden influx of pets could adversely affect pet ownership. Since we saw all of these new pet purchases at the start of the pandemic, the same pets could be abandoned in shelters when everyone got back to work.
Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be happening because our bond with animals is as strong as ever. Yet this influx of animals appears to have exacerbated the problems of an overworked and understaffed veterinary community.
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As early as last spring, stories came from across the country about regular veterinary appointments that were becoming increasingly difficult, long journeys to find open emergency rooms for pets, hours of waiting after arrival and specialists who were fully booked for weeks.
A local dog groomer tells a harrowing story of a customer’s daughter who had a Golden Retriever puppy for two days, and while playing in the yard, the owner slipped on wet grass and fell on the puppy.
They waited four hours in the emergency room while the puppy howled in pain and had an allegedly dislocated hip. After calling numerous other clinics and driving for three hours, it turned out that the injury was a hip fracture. They then found out that the specialty surgery clinic booked out 2 weeks, so the puppy got a box rest, got pain killers around the clock and had devastated the family.
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To know why this is happening, I worked with my friend Chris, who works as a veterinary assistant on site, and with Dr. Carissa Brandt, DVM, who works at Snoqualmie Ridge Veterinary Hospital, asked a few questions.
When asked why people have to wait long hours for emergency pet care or are turned away by emergency vet facilities, Chris noted that pre-pandemic veterinary clinics were understaffed. With Covid, the issue has worsened.
Chris says: “Covid is still a reality. Employees may continue to need to be quarantined due to a variety of Covid-related issues, reducing staffing levels even further. In addition, there are many new pets and new pet owners who have more questions and make more mistakes. Some emergency services, such as the emergency room at the Alpentierpital, were also closed before Covid, and you have long waiting times. “
Dr. Brandt agrees that veterinarians can become scarce for a number of reasons, including retirement of older veterinarians, compassionate fatigue, the physical, emotional, and psychological ramifications of helping others, or changing careers due to the pressures of huge student debts. She adds that veterinarians generally have a high turnover rate due to lower pay, compassionate fatigue, and long hours, which leads to more staffing issues.
My next question was what can pet parents do when they have an emergency? Both agreed first to make sure it was a real emergency. Just like human emergency rooms, non-emergencies can slow things down. If you’re not sure whether to go in, call your veterinarian or an emergency veterinarian.
Right now you have to be ready to shout and drive. Chris recently had a pet emergency, was turned away by several vets, and ended up at South Seattle Veterinary in Burien. No one who got near him could bring him in. Dr. Brandt tells of a similar problem with her own pet. Have a list of emergency vets before an emergency occurs. Two resources for West Washington are:
Recently, I personally saw the emergence of services on social media offering veterinary telemedicine services and I met Dr. Brandt asked for her opinion. Although she couldn’t specifically recommend them because she didn’t know what it was about, she, like me, was intrigued by the concept of realizing that they could and possibly be helpful in triage (mapping the urgency of a condition) of pets could help the owners decide whether or not to go in.
Additionally, animal poison control hotlines can provide valuable information that will help parents identify their pets and protect them from toxic substances like plants, food, medicine for humans, and more. There is likely to be a fee, but it can save you money and time during this time of crisis.
So can we all do something to avoid an emergency in the first place? Dr. Brandt emphasized the importance of having a valid patient / client relationship with your veterinarian and staying up to date with your pet’s health checkups every year. Dog owners seem to be better at this than cat owners, but everyone should see a veterinarian at least once a year.
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Having your veterinarian familiar with your pet will make it easier for you to see your veterinarian if something unexpected happens. You will know the history of the animal and will be better able to decide how quickly you need to be seen.
Chris agrees, “Make sure your pet receives routine care, especially vaccinations. Think about what you will be feeding your pet and what your pet will have access to. Poisoning often leads to a trip to the emergency room. It’s difficult to book regular vets, but try not to wait for it to be an emergency. If you think your pet is sick, take care of it. “
Personally, I would add that having a lasting relationship with your groomer (if you have a coated dog) is also important. More than once, my hairdresser Kandis has drawn my attention to a lump, bump or parasite that I have taken care of in person or with a visit to the vet.
During this time of crisis, be understanding and patient with your animal care team. Do you understand veterinary staff is also frustrated and very overwhelmed. They often work long hours, miss lunch breaks and give everything. Rejecting pets is difficult, especially those that are very sick or injured. Even a simple appointment takes time. You may think an appointment only takes a few minutes, but it often takes much longer if you add the right medical procedures and notes to ensure continuity and quality of care.
Finally, be careful with your furry family member. Do not change food quickly or allow access to human food. Keep them on a leash and away from unfamiliar situations and / or dogs. Keep up with vaccines, learn basic first aid / CPR skills on pets, cut those toenails regularly, and make sure they are always trained and under control.
As society continues to open up, I assume these pandemic puppies will continue to see previously unforeseen challenges (as we all will). Even so, with a little care, we can keep our furry children safe and happy.