‘We’re feeling the stress of incredible numbers, and it’s affecting people’: Pandemic pets put unexpected strain on veterinary practices

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Angell, the largest veterinary clinic in New England, is expected to have about 10,000 additional visits this year, including another 4,000 in the ambulance service. Waiting times for emergency care, which averaged less than an hour in 2019, can now be up to five hours.

“Nobody really predicted this could happen,” said Dr. Kiko Bracker, Director of Angell Ambulance Services.

Veterinarians are inundated with the crowd of pet owners who come for visits to the Angell Animal Medical Center and other clinics.John Tlumacki / globe staff

A profession that is already facing a shortage of veterinarians and technicians must now deal with it. More than 11 million US households took in a new pet last September during the pandemic, according to the American Pet Products Association.

“We’re feeling the stress of an incredible number, and it’s affecting people,” said Bracker of his employees. “It’s less temperament, it feels burned out, it’s compassionate fatigue, and it brings bad news far too often. It really burdens you. “

Jamie Falzone, executive director of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association, said she sees similar concerns across the industry. A survey of members of the organization committed to the profession showed that business has grown across the board, she said.

“I don’t think any person has said they are not upstairs in any way, and most are dramatic,” Falzone said.

The pandemic kept people close to their homes, and many who had wanted pets before COVID now had the time and inclination to do so. But being at home meant more interaction with pets – many of them lived with first-time owners – and familiarity often brought trouble.

Juno, a 14-year-old mix, was waiting in the Angell lobby with owner Becca. Juno, a 14-year-old mix, was waiting in the Angell lobby with owner Becca. John Tlumacki / Globe Staff

“You notice more when you sit at home and Fluffy is looking at you from the couch. They can’t speak, they can’t tell us how they’re feeling and we have to interpret, ”said Falzone. “Just like with a child, there is no guide on how to read your animal.”

The pent-up demand in veterinary care is pushing pet owners from small, overwhelmed clinics to larger hospitals with greater capacity.

“We were the last stop, if you will,” said Ames Prentiss, chief executive officer of Ethos Veterinary Health, a national network that does about half of its business in emergency medical services. “If we didn’t stay open, there were no options for them. If we hadn’t worked twice as hard and the teams stayed two, three and four hours past their shifts, they would have had nowhere to go. “

The company’s emergency patient volume has increased 39 percent this year, Prentiss said, although the pandemic brought some significant changes.

Ethos Hospitals in Woburn, Lawrence, and Natick began roadside service in the spring of 2020 to keep customers and staff safe. The animals were picked up by cars in parking lots and taken to the clinic for examination and treatment.

Technician Hilary Blair got a treat from Fritz when guard Rae Bowman (left) held him.Technician Hilary Blair got a treat from Fritz when guard Rae Bowman (left) held him.John Tlumacki / Globe Staff

All three hospitals will resume normal operations by next week, Prentiss said. While the roadside approach was necessary during the pandemic, it had its drawbacks.

“There’s really a lot going to be lost if you can’t interact face-to-face with the pet owner,” said Prentiss. “That made it difficult for our teams to communicate as effectively as we’d like.”

At Angell, the demands became so severe that the hospital moved emergency personnel from a field office in Waltham to Jamaica Plain.

Dr. Virginia Sinnott-Stutzman, an emergency and critical care doctor at Angell, said with a half-smile that she was sometimes reminded of the overcrowded emergency rooms in television dramas.

Carl Rossi waited two hours in Angell's waiting area to have his cat, Max, checked out after Max fled for five days and came back with a possibly broken jaw. Carl Rossi waited two hours in Angell’s waiting area to have his cat, Max, checked out after Max fled for five days and came back with a possibly broken jaw. John Tlumacki / Globe Staff

“It feels like that,” said Sinnott-Stutzman. Lots of people have waited for hours and gone unnoticed, she added.

To reduce waiting times, Angell’s 24-hour call center not only warns pet owners of the expected waiting time, but plans to hire staff to help people determine if a trip to the emergency room is necessary, Rob Halpin said, MSPCA Angell spokesman.

“You run as fast as you can to handle these cases,” said Bracker, the head of the ambulance service. “Hopefully this is a once in a lifetime experience.”

Bracker has also familiarized himself with keeping pets again. In his office was Rosie, a 7 month old Golden Retriever whom the vet brought home in February.

“If you’ve never had a pet, it’s hard [predict] the amount of work you have to do, ”said Bracker.

At the end of the hall, Bracker checked the eyes and teeth of Fritz, a large Golddoodle whose sore joints suggested he might have Lyme disease. It had taken Fritz four hours to get to this table, where assistant Rae Bowman gently soothed his head while technician Hilary Blair took his blood pressure.

“Although our staff has been increased, it is still secured,” said Blair.

Prentiss of Ethos Veterinary Health said he believes the demand for pets will remain high as the pandemic subsides.

“I don’t think that will change anytime soon. I don’t see it going backwards. I think people are just more attuned to their pets, ”said Prentiss. “We have to adapt our processes and our systems to the volume.”

South Natick’s Janet Kalin understands this connection. She had waited 2½ hours at Angell’s before Lola, a 12-year-old miniature schnauzer, could be examined for bladder stones.

“Every clinic tries to do a good job. You are just overwhelmed, ”Kalin said, pausing in the sweltering heat next to the hospital parking lot.

Owning a pet comes with obligations, benefits and sometimes inconveniences.

“When you adopt an animal, that is a real commitment to care,” said Kalin. “These are your children.”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.