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Sheri Santucci is out at 7:30 a.m. every morning for her job as a veterinary assistant at the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center. But she is never sure when she will leave the office.
It is often 10 to 12 hours later.
“We’re exhausted,” she said. “There is a lot of crying to and from work.”
A sign outside North Hills Hospital indicates the waiting time for a specific day. On a Friday at the end of August it said: “CURRENT WAITING TIME: 8 HOURS. PLEASE BE PATIENT.”
PVSEC’s long waiting times are not only unique in hospitals. Veterinary offices across the country have seen an increase in pet visits since the pandemic began.
It’s a tense time for an industry already plagued by high levels of stress, burnout and alarming suicide rates.
“We kind of joked today that we think everyone in our department is betting on anti-anxiety medicine,” said Santucci.
Santucci describes how this came about as a domino effect. Most hospitals could still use an additional veterinarian or two. But pandemic restrictions have forced many general practitioners to limit appointments and send their clients to hospitals for treatment instead. That stream of pet visits didn’t stop when things opened up again.
The pandemic puppy boom
The administrative burden associated with each hospital visit has also become more complicated during the pandemic. Many hospitals still do paperwork over the phone while pet owners wait in their cars in the parking lot. Then vets come and collect the pet while the owner is left in his car.
“I would say [it’s] three times as much work as before, ”said Santucci.
Then there is the pandemic puppy boom. Thousands of dogs found homes during the lockdown, but these new owners had to schedule veterinary appointments for their new furry family members.
Instead of waiting rooms in veterinary clinics, many pet owners wait in their cars until their animal can be seen.
“Each new puppy became hours of work on the part of the veterinary clinic and staff,” said Dr. Larry Gerson, president of the Western Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association. “They have a visit every three to four weeks until their vaccines are up to date, and then you have to neuter or have them neutered.”
According to Gerson, who ran Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic before he retired in 2020, general veterinarians can see their schedules are filled in an hour each day. Since open appointments were already tight, the puppy boom blocked the entire veterinary system.
The rise in the number of cases has forced hospitals to prioritize the most critical cases. That means pets with chronic problems or symptoms that can wait will usually have to come back another day, which can lead to tense words from the pet owner on the other end of the phone.
Santucci said her colleagues regularly speak to customers who are screaming in desperation. But even giving priority to people with the most serious illnesses was not enough to meet demand.
“We’re just getting to the point where there are no more cages,” she said. “Or there are just so many emergency doctors [compared] to patients. We just can’t. “
Several times a week the hospital has to take what Santucci calls a “break from work” in order to catch up with the animals that have already been checked in. Pets are not allowed for care during a break. Work breaks can last for hours.
Both Santucci and Gerson say all emergency veterinary clinics in the Pittsburgh area paused their services for at least one day in August at the same time.
Unparalleled vet visits
Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center (PVSEC) is owned by BluePearl Veterinary Partners, a company that is itself owned by Mars Inc. BluePearl representatives declined an interview request for this story.
But the company blogged about the unprecedented number of cases at its hospitals earlier this year.
BluePearl’s 2020 Veterinary Report found that its hospitals saw 200,000 more pets in 2020 than in 2019. Of the 1.1 million pets the hospitals looked after in 2020, more than half were new customers.
In addition to more people getting pets, the report theorizes that people make additional vet visits because they spend more time with their cat or dog and notice small changes in behavior as a result of the pandemic.
“This shift in the home dynamic, coupled with an increase in pet adoptions and an increased commitment to pet health, has resulted in a significant increase in veterinary office visits,” said Paul Pratscher, director of customer experience and insights at BluePearl in the Report.
The report also notes an increase in the number of people postponed health visits to their regular veterinarian seeking special or emergency care for their pet’s worsening chronic or serious illness.
Many veterinarians and pet owners have been forced to cancel wellness visits during the federal and state government shutdowns due to the pandemic. Elective operations on humans were also postponed to this time.
Gerson said this caused a surge in bookings as things reopened.
PVSEC is by no means the only veterinary clinic with an unprecedented number of cases. Other veterinary clinics in the area have posted statements on their websites warning customers of a lack of appointments and new restrictions on walk-in appointments.
The Big Easy Animal Hospital in the North Side has limited availability and claims to forward intensive care appointments to other hospitals in the area, including PVSEC.
“During these challenging times, there have been some unforeseen changes at Big Easy Animal Hospital. I cannot sincerely apologize enough for the inconvenience you have experienced at The Big Easy during these times, ”writes Dr. Big Easy owner Aileen Ruiz in a statement on the hospital website.
Avets in Monroeville has also made public statements about the unprecedented demand the hospital is seeing, prioritizing animals in critical condition.
A post on the hospital’s Facebook page reads:
“Our team is experiencing
- Extended and extra shifts to be available when you need us most.
- Exhaustion to keep up with the increased demand for our services.
- Emotional stress from trying so hard to help each pet while experiencing frustration and lack of kindness.
Please be kind, respectful, and patient. We are all compassionate animal lovers and will do everything we can to look after your pet! “
More pets, fewer vets
While there are more and more pets to care for, the veterinary industry is bleeding workers to death.
“I know for sure that a number of [local] Clinics have lost staff, ”stressed the remaining vets and vets Gerson. “That puts a strain on the existing staff to cover the demand and then someone else says: ‘I can no longer work here. It’s just too crazy. ‘”
Some of Santucci’s former employees left veterinary medicine to work in human medicine during the height of the pandemic.
“Many quit and go back to nursing school,” she says.
Others, like Gerson himself, are retiring. One in three veterinarians is a baby boomer and more than half are practice owners, according to data from the American Veterinary Medical Association.
71-year-old Gerson was encouraged by his family to stop practicing during the height of the pandemic due to the risk the virus posed to him and his wife. He finally decided to retire for good.
A recent report by the American Veterinary Medical Association identified sales as an industry-wide problem.
“Many hospitals work with fewer team members and a higher turnover. Emergency clinics seem particularly difficult to stay full because they are inundated with a steady stream of patients – both urgent and non-urgent, “the report said.
However, the report shows reason to believe that the current workload is not what is known as the “new normal”.
“While there were more vet visits in 2021, it’s important to note that we don’t yet know if these increases are permanent. It is possible that temporary, cyclical economic factors are affecting demand – factors like higher disposable income and owners spending more time with their pets at home, ”it says. “In addition, the need to catch up due to delayed veterinary services increases the current need for veterinary care.”
That doesn’t mean that the everyday stresses of people like Santucci will soon go nowhere. She hopes that when enough people learn how overwhelmed skinny vets are these days, they’ll have a little more understanding of waiting times.
“Try to be kind and patient with us,” said Santucci. “We’re doing our best.”