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The rise in pet ownership over the past year has increased the demands on veterinarians, a profession already burdened by burnout and emotional stress.
More than 11 million U.S. households took in a new pet last September during the COVID pandemic, according to the American Pet Products Association. A hospital administrator at a local veterinary clinic said the impact on the industry will be sustained as the increase in demand will be seen for the average lifespan of pets between 10 and 16 years.
According to Dr. Danielle Lorenzo, veterinarian and owner of the Florence Animal Clinic on Locust Street, said there was a “knock-on effect” in the veterinary industry due to staff shortages and increasing demand.
“We’re not taking on new customers and the backlog is overwhelming,” said Lorenzo.
Since their urgent supplies are practically at full capacity, they often have to refer pet owners to veterinary clinics, where waiting times can be up to 24 hours, according to Lorenzo.
“Nobody takes on new customers,” said Lorenzo, noting that the Florence Animal Clinic has had a waiting list since January and few have been removed since then. “We are fully booked for three months.”
The Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association released a statement in late July that explained some of the factors that contribute to long waiting times in veterinary offices.
“During the pandemic, pet ownership increased, creating an unprecedented need for veterinary care,” the association said in a statement. “This, along with an existing shortage of veterinary professionals, has put significant pressure on veterinary teams, particularly in emergency care. For pet owners, this means waiting times much longer than usual and possibly moving from hospital to hospital as some locations are congested and cannot receive additional patients. ”
“Pet ownership has definitely increased – it was reported quite frequently – during the pandemic,” Lorenzo said. “A lot of people were at home, bored, and if they didn’t think of repairs before the lumber (prices) shot through the roof, people would think of a new puppy and kitten.”
Lorenzo said that some of these pets will find it difficult to adjust to their owners’ schedules when they return to the office from remote work.
When the pandemic forced many companies to close last spring, Lorenzo said there was a lack of guidelines for veterinary clinics and they often rolled out new protocols in real time to keep their offices safe for staff and patients.
“We’re not closed,” she said. “At some point there were guides from state and national veterinary associations, and everyone was trying to run a business with no people in the building.”
“A lot of people want to come in with their pet – they are reluctant to part with their pet,” she said. “Sitting in the parking lot wasn’t so popular. Coupled with staff shortages, people who had to stay home to look after a family member, a lot of employees who didn’t want to go in, and others who worked from home for weeks, veterinary medicine is not a work-in-business works particularly well from home. ”
She described her workers as “overworked” after a year of increased stress and demand from pet owners.
See 60-80 cases per day
The knock-on effect of veterinary practices being unable to accept new customers has increased the demands on veterinary clinics such as the Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Hospital on Greenfield Road in South Deerfield.
“The demand for veterinary care has grown significantly since March 2020,” said Keri Gardent, hospital administrator for Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Hospital. “The significant increase in pet ownership has impacted all areas of veterinary medicine, from emergency, wellness and preventive care to specialty services. We saw a 154% increase in the number of cases in the years leading up to the pandemic. ”
Gardent said the hospital had hired more than 35 people in the past 16 months. The build-up includes additional technicians, liaison officers and doctors. Additionally, the hospital added “runners” to move pets from the parking lot to the office staff to handle the visits.
One recent afternoon in July, Holyoke’s Scott Defelice visited the Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Hospital for his house cat, Toby, a Maine Coon breed that “has been exposed to the weather and looked lethargic.” Defelice got Toby last year and said he was home more often to accept a cat if his niece showed up with a litter one day.
Defelice said his regular vet couldn’t see him that late July day and he would have to go to the veterinary clinic to see the cat. “The veterinary business is booming, no doubt, and there will be a 10 year surge in opportunity,” he said.
Another pet owner, Polly Rocray, had gone downstairs to have her cat, Moses, treated for stomach cancer. She said she was home more often realizing how much more time and attention pets need.
While facilities across Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire have had to close their emergency rooms or reduce opening hours, as a 24/7 emergency and specialty facility, the Veterinary Emergency & Specialty Hospital prides itself on never having to close its doors, Gardent said.
“We owe this credit to our dedicated employees,” she said. “The veterinary staff and the entire industry are heavily burdened by the increase in the number of cases, which leads to increasing burnout of the staff. We are doing everything we can to support our employees in these difficult times. ”
As an emergency and intensive care unit, Gardent said, the veterinary hospital is capable of hospitalizing between 20-25 patients. “In outpatient emergencies, we usually see 60 to 80 cases a day. Similar to your human emergency room, cases are considered based on the severity of the medical condition.
“Due to the significant demand for more emergency pet care, we plan to build a second facility in West Springfield next year,” said Gardent. “We are very pleased to continue expanding our services in order to offer pets in need more medical care.”
Lorenzo would like to remind pet owners that their employees are under enormous pressure and treat them politely.
“We range from days that are booked from relatively reasonable to triple and it’s not good,” said Lorenzo. “It’s not good for veterinarians’ mental health, not good for veterinarians who feel burned out and underrated. They are not treated kindly and bear the brunt of the pet owners. They deliver news they don’t want to hear about availability and what to do to be seen. People can be great, but they can also be argumentative and selfish. Most of our customers are on the side of being great, but not one hundred percent.
“I’ve fired more clients in the last year than in all of the last 10 years,” said Lorenzo. “If you don’t treat our employees with respect, you will be fired more than anything.”
Luis Fieldman can be reached at email@example.com.