Veterinary emergency services the latest to be hit by staffing shortages

Farmers Korner Veterinary Hospital is pictured Sunday, Jan. 9. The veterinary office is one of many in Summit County that are struggling with staffing levels, leading to reduced emergency services.
Lindsey Toomer/Summit Daily News

As is the case with many industries across the county, veterinary services are being impacted by staffing shortages.

Until recently, the Summit County Veterinary Emergency Group had round-the-clock emergency care.

The emergency service is operated by five local animal hospitals — Breckenridge Animal Hospital, Farmers Korner Veterinary Hospital, Silverthorne Veterinary Hospital, Frisco Animal Hospital and Buffalo Mountain Animal Hospital — that rotate daily as the center of Summit County’s emergency service for veterinary patients.

Typically, one vet from the emergency group will be on call for after hours emergency services each day of the week, and the five participants in the service rotate who is on call each weekend. Christina Hurley, hospital manager at Farmers Korner Veterinary Hospital, said the voicemail for each of the emergency groups’ participants should state which office is on call for that day.

Hurley said the emergency group had even started helping some folks from Park and Grand counties, as the whole purpose of the service is to try to prevent people from having to make the trip to the Front Range in an emergency.

But on Tuesday, Jan. 4, there were no emergency vet services in Summit County because there was not enough staff to run the service at the office that was on call that day.

More days without local emergency vet services are likely to come, and while the service has historically been in operation 24 hours per day, this will be changing soon, too.

dr Justin Milizio, a veterinarian at Silverthorne Veterinary Hospital, said that because of staffing shortages, many in the group decided it would be best to stop on-call emergency services after 10 pm, which he said will go into effect at the start of February. Because of this, he encouraged local pet owners to contact their vet as soon as they notice an issue with their animal.

“We try to always tell people that if they’re experiencing an emergency during the day, they should always contact the vet sooner than later,” Milizio said. “Most of our late-at-night calls … almost all of them are people who’ve been watching their dog go through something all day, and for some reason, they don’t call until the middle of the night.”

Milizio estimated the Summit County Veterinary Emergency Group handles anywhere from 20 to 30 emergencies per week, but there are typically more emergency calls in the summer than in the winter.

Hurley said staffing the veterinary offices in Summit County has always been difficult, but lately, they joke that “we don’t know where everybody went.” Hurley said Dr. Denisa Court is the only veterinarian at Farmers Korner.

“She’s working every day, and she got to the point where she can’t do all of the on-call shifts as well for the hospital,” Hurley said. “We were one of the ones that had to at least cut the amount of shifts that we’re working, but there are other hospitals that are backing out completely for the time being.”

While Hurley said it’s difficult to say how many more days Summit County will have without emergency vet services, Milizio said he expects the service to lose about 40% of its days in operation, and changing the service to run from 8 am to 10 pm will so reduce hourly availability.

“We’re getting to a point where we just have a lot of days where there’s not going to be someone on call, and that’s going to be challenging for the community,” Milizio said. “… Between staffing shortages and hospital group participation, there will be nights where people should probably be aware that they need to try to go down and seek emergency help down on the Front Range.”

Milizio said if it were up to him, the emergency group would not be limiting its services because it’s such a vital need for the community.

“This is not something that I want to do,” Milizio said. “I do not want to have a rotation that is lacking in the county. … I don’t want our clients to go without emergency care. … It’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Hurley and Milizio said Frisco Animal Hospital indicated it will be limiting its emergency service shifts, too, and will be unable to take any shifts after the end of January, but a veterinarian at Frisco Animal Hospital could not be reached to confirm.

Hurley said Farmers Korner is diligently looking for more veterinarians and vet technicians to work at the hospital. She asked that clients be kind and patient with their local vets while they have limited staffing.

“It’s an issue everywhere, but just please be kind and patient and know that we’re working as hard as we can,” Hurley said.

When the day comes that there are no emergency vet services available locally, Milizio recommended folks contact Wheat Ridge Animal Hospital or Colorado Animal Specialty & Emergency in Boulder.