‘We are trying our best, and we are humans’

As COVID crept into our lives, so did a sense of isolation sparked by self-quarantine, national lockdowns and all-things-remote. Throughout those lonely months, many found a furry friend. Fast forward 18 months, doctors are struggling to keep up as these pandemic puppies and quarantined cuties take over veterinary hospitals.

| 18 Oct 2021 | 01:26

During the first four weeks after COVID made it’s way into our lives in March of 2020, pet adoption inquiries jumped 122 percent from the previous four weeks, according to Petfinder.com.

Now, more than a year later, the number of adoption inquiries is still increasing.

Orchard Grove veterinary hospital in Warwick, N.Y. saw it firsthand. “As a comparison to 2019, we had 594 new patients that year and 257 of them were new clients,” said Kristen, the office manager. “Right now as of October 7, we have 611 new patients and 292 new clients and we’re not even done with the year yet.”

‘We’re overwhelmed’

“During the pandemic, the number of pets needing care increased by a lot; the number of veterinarians did not increase. In fact, that number has decreased,” said Dr. Sarah Marpet, veterinarian at Country Willow Veterinary Hospital in Warwick, N.Y., which she co-owns with her husband and fellow veterinarian, Dr. Brian Civatte.

Country Willow has seen a 20 percent increase in pet appointments since COVID. “It makes sense, you can’t hang out with people as much, or even family, so what were people left with?” said Marpet. “Their pets.”

“It doesn’t matter what species we’re talking about, or even size - it could be dogs, cats, birds - there’s an increase in everything.”

Marpet said veterinary medicine as a whole was at a precipitous point prior to the pandemic, and COVID exacerbated the issue.

“We’re not graduating out enough vets, and what vets we have are being snatched up by different companies, larger corporations and things like that, and so we already had a bit of a shortage,” Marpet said. “People were struggling to hire.”

Larger organizations, like research facilities, consultant companies, and public health and regulatory medicine are some of the higher paid options veterinarians have after school, other than private practice (what your local veterinarian does). The reason many veterinarians go to bigger companies is because of student debt.

The average student loan debt for veterinarians is $183,302, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

“My husband graduated with $250,000 in just vet school debt alone. Now, it’s getting worse,” said Marpet. She said she knows someone who is currently in veterinarian school, and the cost is $86,000 per school year - and it takes about eight years of schooling to become a veterinarian doctor.

This would be less alarming if vets made more money. “Medical doctors make a ridiculous amount of money compared to us, and they get all of the perks,” Marpet said. “We’re exactly the same: crippling debt, years of medical schools, and people still like to say we’re not real doctors.”

Added on to that, there is a limited number of veterinarian schools, only 38 English speaking programs, in all of North America. Plus, those schools usually graduate small class sizes, a number that is tiny in comparison to the number of pets needing care.

“Because of that quantum long term shortage, vets are getting burnt out early on in their careers,” said Marpet. “So they were leaving the field already, and then adding on a pandemic, an increased strain, adding curbside care and changing practices... We’re overwhelmed, is the best way to put it.”

Struggling to book pet appointments

Straus News sent out a survey asking locals if they were having any issues: booking appointments, long wait times, curbside pick-up problems, etc. Of the 396 respondents, only 12% answered they were having trouble making appointments.

Heather Davies from Monroe, N.Y., expressed frustration after her local veterinarian stopped accepting new pet clients, especially as she had just adopted a bulldog in the midst of the pandemic.

“We were able to get an appointment for our new puppy because we were existing clients, but we still had to wait a couple of weeks to get an appointment,” said Davies.

Many veterinarians across the country stopped accepting new clients as the demand for appointments outstripped the supply of veterinarians.

“During COVID, you miss a lot of contact and I thought a dog would be nice to have around the house,” said Jeremy Zweig, a Goshen, N.Y. local who adopted a puppy back in November 2020, deciding it was time for a new companion while he works remotely.

“I was watching all of the news coverage, and everyone on my social media feed with their new dogs,” said Zweig. “It took me a little longer than most people but ultimately, I decided I definitely needed a dog in my life.”

Zweig said he didn’t have a problem finding a local vet hospital to take in his new puppy as a client, nor had any problems scheduling appointments, but expressed his frustration with the curb-side drop off practice during COVID, which only ended a few months ago.

“For the first four-to-five months of his life I had to drop him off at the curb, which was a reasonable precaution because of COVID but it was really challenging for me, who had a new puppy and never met the vet, to drop my puppy off at the door,” said Zweig.

“It was definitely not an ideal situation.”

Tough crowd

Many pet owners are frustrated - and letting their veterinarians know.

“Clients are really tough right now, the toughest I have ever experienced,” said Marpet. “I had to fire a client last year because they were cursing at staff members.”

“Firing clients” is a term veterinarians use when they no longer wish to serve that client and patient. The notice is typically provided via a written letter, which is often sent to the client with a printed copy of the patient’s medical records.

“Especially with the curbside aspect, people forget that we’re humans behind the phone. It’s kind of like people behind a computer, the keyboard warriors type of thing,” Marpet said. “They say things that are horrific, which are not okay.”

Although this isn’t the case for all local veterinarian hospitals. Orchard Grove Animal Hospital in Warwick, N.Y., is experiencing much of the same problems as Country Willow - overbooking, and overworked vets. “We’ve been lucky, our clients have been great for the most part,” said Kristen, the office manager.

Orchard Grove never required curbside drop off. They allowed one person in with a mask on; pet owners had to wait for their appointment in the car.

Kristen believes that one of the reasons Orchard Grove saw such an increase in new clients, and less difficult clients, was because of their decision to let pet owners in with their pets. “Even other vets around the area weren’t letting them (pet owners) in during euthanasia, they were letting them look through windows, or saying goodbye at the door. But we allowed people in for that as well,” said Kristen.

Kristen said that she doesn’t see the influx of pet adoptions slowing any time soon. “For example, in August 2020 we had 52 new patients and in August 2021, we had 80 new patients. It’s just more and more.”

While some speculated that animal shelters would be inundated with pandemic puppies as soon as they grew to full size and the world went back to full spin, shelters for the most part have not seen an increase in drop-offs.

Marpet at Country Willow said she was expecting to hear there would be a lot of returns after 2020. While her clinic did see a small dip, adoptions, for the most part, have remained steady.

“Has it slowed a little bit? Sure. But there’s still the underlying problem that so many pets went into new homes, and we didn’t increase the number of vets available. There’s a limited finite pool, unfortunately,” said Marpet.

Overbooked and overworked

“We’re facing a once-in-a-lifetime mix of challenges in the field of veterinary medicine right now, driven by three converging trends-- in short, more pets, more appointments and a shortage of veterinary talent often results in longer wait times and fewer available appointments,” said Dr. Christine Ferrao, Medical Director for VCA Orange County Veterinary Hospital.

“At VCA, we’ve seen a significant increase in patients since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Ferrao. “We saw more new patients in 2020 than in any of the prior 3 years.”

Marpet said that at one point in the pandemic, her clinic had a 6-8 week wait time for an appointment, and were taking in at least 10 emergencies daily, while also having to turn away clients with emergencies every day.

“I still have a waitlist, and I’m still booked out for about two weeks,” said Marpet. “I did manage to hire another doctor who is coming in December. But I know people who have had help wanted ads out for two years, and still haven’t found anybody. You have to be very competitive.”

Additionally, Marpet has an eight-week-old child at home and remains on maternity leave, while her husband works at the clinic with one other doctor. Marpet still visits every now and then to help out when needed.

“It’s a women-dominated profession, and we’re very behind on how we think of maternity leave and things like that,” said Marpet. “I’ve had friends expected to come back after six weeks. I have an eight-week-old, and I own my practice, and the idea of coming back in a few weeks is scary to me.”

Orchard Grove is experiencing much of the same, as doctors are booked every 20 minutes, instead of 40, which was normal prior to the pandemic. “There just isn’t enough time in a day,” said Kristen.

“We are trained to do a medical standard for booking appointments called ABC, which stands for airway, breathing, and circulatory. So is your dog walking, are there any neurological signs, is your dog breathing, stuff like that. There are clear signs when it’s an emergency,” said Kristen.

There’s also the matter of urgent appointments, which is when a pet owner believes it is an emergency, which Kristen and her staff try to get them in within that day or that week. “We try to accommodate the best of what we can,” said Kristen.

Losing veterinarians left and right

Veterinary work has been heavily idealized by the general population. For example, it’s usually the top job listed on every kindergarteners “what I want to be when I grow up” list. Many fail to realize the unique set of challenges veterinarians face. The daily demands at work, including euthanizing dogs and cats, many of whom could be saved, and then being vilified by pet owners for not meeting their expectations, are just some of the difficulties.

With more than 70,000 veterinarians in the U.S., the job has led to disproportionately high suicide rates, according to a study done by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Nearly 400 veterinarians died by suicide between 1979 and 2015, and female veterinarians are up to 3.5 times more likely to kill themselves than members of the general population, according to that same study.

“At the core of mental health challenges for many veterinarians is often the very thing that led them to choose a career in pet health: they are passionate about helping animals and want to provide high-quality, compassionate care,” said Ferrao. “These daily pressures can be compounded with other factors, such as high rates of student debt, challenging client interactions, compassion fatigue, and most recently, a pandemic, which has increased isolation and disrupted routines for many.”

“It’s a lot about who we are,” said Marpet. “We’re a lot of Type A personalities, and we want to problem solve. And there’s an aspect of we want to help people.”

“There’s a reason why the suicide rate is so high: it’s the emotional guilt combined with very empathic people that want to help, a long with long hours, and there’s very few boundaries,” said Marpet.

Boundaries such as, having clients ask about their dog’s ear infection in the middle of a grocery store aisle - or an old high school acquaintance messaging a veterinarian on Facebook out of the blue to inquire about their cat’s recent evasion to food.

“The line needs to be more drawn,” said Marpet.

When asked what pet owners can keep in mind while struggling to make their appointments, Ferrao and Marpet had this to say.

“The pandemic has certainly increased the demand for veterinary care. But, what’s important for readers to understand is that veterinary professionals of all stripes are deeply committed to the health and wellbeing of pets,” said Ferrao. “It’s a tough job and the kindness we’ve seen from our clients is so appreciated. And we ask for continued patience and kindness as we navigate these unprecedented times together.”

“We can only see a certain number of patients and keep up patient care. If you want your pet to receive the best care, we can’t see every patient immediately. Otherwise our patient care starts to slip and we’re gonna miss something, and then you’re going to be even more unhappy,” said Marpet.

“We are trying our best” she added, “and we are humans.”

Tips for Booking a Pet’s Appointment
Provided by Dr. Christine Ferrao, Medical Director for VCA Orange County Veterinary Hospital
• Book appointments in advance when possible. The best appointments to book early include annual and semi-annual wellness check-ups, vaccinations, dental cleanings, and elective surgeries. If you’re unsure which appointments to schedule, ask your vet.
• Have a financial plan. Pet care can often be expense, just like in human healthcare. Prepare now by creating an emergency fund to use should something happen to your pet. Purchasing pet insurance is another tool that can help lighten the financial load.
• Know where to go for backup care. It’s important to know where you can take your pet for care in the case of an emergency. Know where several veterinary clinics are in your area just in case your hospital of choice is unable to see you. You can also ask if your veterinary hospital offers tele-triage or other virtual care options.