One day in late June, Judy Hughes left her 5-month-old puppy, Shelby, in a restricted area of the house for 15 minutes while she went to the basement to do laundry. When she came back, the remainder of a disposable training pad — what some call a piddle or pee pad — was hanging from Shelby’s mouth.
“She managed to devour half of it in 15 minutes,” says Hughes, a retired human resources employee with the city of Madison.
Hughes immediately called the VCA Veterinary Emergency Service in Middleton. The receptionist said Shelby, a papillon, needed to be seen soon because if the pad moved to her intestines she would likely need surgery.
The receptionist shared something else, also concerning. “She said under normal circumstances it would be a six-plus-hour wait,” says Hughes. But because Hughes knew exactly what Shelby had eaten and when, the puppy would be triaged to the top of the list.
Hughes raced to the ER and Shelby was seen by a technician within 15 minutes. The puppy was given an injection that made her throw up the piddle pad.
Though grateful for the speedy care Shelby received, Hughes says she felt for all the “poor pet parents” in the waiting room who’d been there for hours. They were calm, she says, as was clinic staff, despite the stress and challenges. “The lovely receptionist was trying her best to coordinate everything and answer the phones for emergencies. And the techs and the vets were trying to do everything they could but wow, I was in awe.”
Madison, along with the rest of the country, is experiencing a severe shortage of veterinarians. “Hospitals, clinics, and vet offices around the US in the past year have been turning animals away because they are shortstaffed,” Sarah Zhang reported in The Atlantic on July 6. “This crisis has hit all levels of the system, from general practice to specialists, but animal emergency rooms — where the job is most stressful — have it the worst.”
“Emergency care cannot be guaranteed for your pets right now,” one vet told Zhang.
Jacob Heuvelmans of DeForest faced that reality when his puppy, Nala, hurt one of her hind legs playing fetch on a Sunday in early June; the goldendoodle couldn’t put any weight on her foot and was yelping in pain. Heuvelmans rushed Nala to the VCA Veterinary Emergency Service on Madison’s east side, where he had taken pets in the past. Told it would be two hours before Nala would be seen, Heuvelmans cradled her in his arms to keep her still. Once Nala was seen by the tech, Heuvelmans was told it would be another four hours before they could get X-rays done.
Eventually Heuvelmans got a diagnosis: Nala had a fractured tibia and would need surgery. But the clinic’s surgery team was not able to get her in that day and was unsure when it could. Heuvelmans started calling other clinics in the area but struck out; Nala was sent home with a splint on her leg, painkillers and sedatives. Heuvelmans was to keep her completely sedated.
On Monday, Heuvelmans continued calling other clinics. One clinic couldn’t do it for a month. He finally found a clinic in Waukesha, 80 miles away, that could get Nala in on Tuesday. Clinic staff there determined that Nala’s fracture wasn’t as severe as initially thought and prescribed a splint instead of surgery. Nala, now more than two months out from the accident, is doing well. And Heuvelmans is grateful.
“Not knowing when [surgery] was going to be and seeing the pain she was in was the worst,” Heuvelmans recalls.
Though staffing shortages are not new to the veterinary profession, the pandemic has made it a crisis. dr Mark Markel, dean of the UW School of Veterinary Medicine, says a few factors are at play, including an increase in pet ownership, with more people keeping a closer eye on their animals while working from home. Also the number of people who use veterinary services has been growing for the last 20 years.
Within the profession, graduates are finding higher compensation and somewhat more manageable schedules at small animal practices. That means fewer specialists, including in emergency critical care, surgery and radiology.
“There is a dramatic shortage of specialists — people who have gone through residency training and are board certified in a particular specialty,” says Markel. “In the old days you might just bring an animal into a general practitioner to do whatever surgery is required. Now the expectation is that you want [someone who is] board certified to take care of your animal, and there are just not enough of them so it’s super challenging.”
COVID safety protocols adopted by clinics during the pandemic also “limited team efficiency and productivity,” according to a report from the American Veterinary Medical Association; as a result there is a backlog of cases.
Madison’s Whole Pet Veterinary Clinic started seeing an “onslaught of calls” during the summer and fall of 2020, says Dr. Megan Caldwell, a former co-owner of the clinic who still works there. For a time the clinic was not accepting new patients due to the high demand and because it was limiting the number of staff in the office at one time.
Caldwell says that in recent years it has become harder to hire experienced vets. “Ever since COVID it has been really tricky to have people even respond to our ads,” she says. “In the past we’d have people apply that had a lot of background,” she adds. Now the clinic needs to train the new hires.
The staffing shortage extends beyond vets. It’s “almost impossible now to hire” certified veterinary technicians, says Caldwell.
Whole Pet alerted its clients to these issues in a July 27 email.
“Veterinary medicine is currently in a staffing crisis,” the clinic wrote. “Our local emergency/urgent care clinics are no exception, and are facing intermittent shutdowns/closures due to staffing shortages. We cannot imagine anything more scary than not having aid in an emergency situation, and we want to help however we can.”
The clinic is trying to save its clients long waits in ERs by clearing more time for urgent care visits. “If you are ever asked to reschedule a wellness visit, know that we are trying to accommodate a very sick pet, and would do the same for you and yours!” the clinic wrote.
Joseph Campbell, director of external communications for VCA, which owns around 1,000 clinics around the country, says some of the extended wait times in emergency rooms are due to people not being able to get into their regular vets. “So you might have an animal in critical need and one with an ear infection,” he says.
Markel says that several new vet schools have opened in the last five to seven years and international schools have been accredited so that graduates can return to the states and practice easily. Many vet schools, including the UW, have also significantly increased class size to address the shortage. But, he adds, “it takes a while to address these kinds of issues.”
A recent study by Mars Veterinary Health, a global network of vet clinics and hospitals, backs up this point, finding that even with the new graduates expected over the next 10 years, there will likely still be a shortage of 15,000 veterinarians by 2030.
Meanwhile, it can be a bit of a jungle out there. Says Caldwell: “One of our staff went to another clinic to pick up meds and they tried to hire her on the spot when she walked in the front door.”