Paula Barnett, who had moved to Portland in June, hadn’t been given a routine induction appointment at a local veterinary clinic. Some clinics didn’t even answer the phone. Others said there was no availability for months.
This was of particular concern to Barnett as Luna, the family’s five-year-old cat, suffered from an autoimmune disease that sometimes led to anemia.
Then came the emergency that she knew would come at some point. Two weeks ago Luna stopped eating and drinking.
“I’ve called every single vet in the greater Portland area,” Barnett told The Oregonian / OregonLive. “Nobody could see them.”
Barnett, a fine jeweler, eventually drove to a veterinary clinic in Corvallis, where she and Luna had to wait in the parking lot – more than five hours.
Luna eventually received treatment and appeared to be improving, but a few days later Barnett found her “unresponsive” in the basement. Another veterinary clinic had to euthanize the affected animal.
Barnett now has to wonder if her family’s beloved pet would still be alive if she had received the consistent, regular veterinary care she had before the family moved to Portland.
“If I had a vet on site to monitor her, I think she would still be with us,” she says.
Barnett’s difficulty getting Luna to a clinic is not an uncommon case. Pet owners across Oregon – and beyond – have to wait months to see their veterinarian. Many clinics are currently vehemently refusing to accept new customers.
A woman in Klamath Falls, frustrated with her inability to get a vet appointment after taking in a “flea-infested” stray kitten, ended up using tutorials on YouTube to find out how to care for her new companion and what over- the- buy counter-drugs.
Many people believe that a pandemic-induced new pet boom is causing this amazing shortage in veterinary care. But it turns out that’s not really the case.
Shelters are taking on the majority of pet adoptions in the U.S., and there has been a significant drop in referrals over the past year, according to a report recently published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The Oregon Humane Society says it has also seen the downward trend, adopting fewer animals than usual.
(There was a surge in pet adoptions at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but this mini-trend quickly reversed, in part because health protection measures made the process of adopting a more cumbersome process.)
Why is it so hard to get an appointment at a veterinary clinic these days? Why are the waiting times in veterinary clinics five or eight or ten hours?
One reason: These pandemic precautions mean veterinarians won’t be able to see as many patients as they normally would, and average productivity will drop 25% in 2020. In addition, Matthew Salois and Gail Golab write in the American newspaper, according to the Veterinary Medical Association report, veterinary practices are still working on a backlog from the first few months of the pandemic when they only saw urgent cases.
Another reason is more worrying: the shortage of staff in the industry, particularly among veterinary technicians, has worsened.
“The problem was on the threshold before the pandemic, and the stress of the pandemic has driven some people over the edge and out of work,” says Dr. Steve Kochis, Chief Medical Officer of the Oregon Humane Society.
“There has always been a staff shortage,” adds Erika Strange, a veteran veterinary assistant in Portland. “Now it has been reinforced by about 5,000.”
The pandemic restrictions are temporary and many clinics have been able to relieve the burden somewhat through innovations such as “virtual” appointments.
The staff shortage is a bigger, more complicated problem.
Becoming a veterinary technician, sometimes referred to as a veterinary nurse or veterinary assistant, usually requires extensive coursework – the Portland Community College’s associate degree in this area is a two-year program. “Vet Techs” then have to pass a national exam in order to obtain the license from the state of Oregon.
Therefore it is “not a simple lever pull” to get more people into the profession, emphasizes Kochis.
Various endemic factors meanwhile lead to a high turnover rate in veterinary practices and veterinary clinics.
Veterinary professionals typically feel called to work, but compensation can end up pulling them out of the job. The average salary for a veterinarian in the industry is just over $ 35,000, and the average salary in Portland is around $ 47,000.
Strange says she knows vets who have jumped to new positions in the field frequently to get better pay and benefits, or who have side jobs outside of the field to make ends meet.
Liz Hughston, a San Jose, Calif., Relief Tech who is also president of the small, relatively new National Veterinary Professionals Union, says a lack of staff continuity is built into the business model of many clinics, especially the smaller ones.
“The only way you can get a pay or benefit increase is to change jobs,” she says. “They just don’t focus on maintaining.”
Some vets’ feeling that they can’t settle in and build careers in a clinic helps drive some out of the job, Hughston adds.
Then there is the stress at work.
Seeing the animal injuries and illnesses that come through the door every day and the sometimes necessary euthanasia takes an emotional toll.
“It’s not an easy job,” says Strange. “I wish we were on the floor playing with puppies all day, but we aren’t.”
Additionally, pet owners can sometimes be very difficult to deal with. They can understand the stress veterinary staff is exposed to, but when they are uncomfortable or worse, unable to take care of their animals, their patience can fray and emotions boil over.
“Sometimes it feels like [clients] take their frustrations out on us, ”says Strange. “People can be very rude.”
In fact, this was a problem even before clinic backlogs and endless waiting times in emergency clinics became the new normal.
“Society in general has lost patience,” says Kochis.
All of this means that burnout is not uncommon for veterinarians and even veterinarians.
“Average veterinary sales are twice that of general practitioners,” Salois and Golab write in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. “And veterinary technicians have one of the top-selling positions in the healthcare sector.”
“If we don’t address the main causes of burnout, we will never fix the problem ourselves – no matter how many new vets or vet technicians we add to the workforce.”
Kochis says concern for the mental health of doctors has come to the fore at the Portland Veterinary Medical Association, where he serves on the board of directors. The association advocates wellness days and promoting self-care programs, he says.
Pet owners may not know all of the factors that play a role, but they are increasingly realizing that there is a problem.
“We need more vets and vets,” said Barnett, adding that she was “heartbroken” about the death of her cat Luna. “Something has to happen.”
However, what could happen in the end is that the problem will get worse.
The industry’s staffing crisis could worsen as the pandemic subsides, as pet adoption is likely to return to normal levels, causing veterinary practices to become even busier.
That said, if you are seriously considering adopting a pet soon, plan ahead.
“Start researching now to find out which vets are actually taking in new patients,” said Laura Klink, public information manager for the Oregon Humane Society and long-time volunteer at their animal shelters. “And get an appointment in the books.”
– Douglas Perry