COVID-19 pet boom has veterinarians backlogged, burned out

During the gloomiest stretches of the pandemic, Dr. Diona Krahn’s veterinary clinic has been a puppy fest, overrun with new four-legged patients.

Typically, she’d get three or four new puppies a week, but between shelter adoptions and private purchases, the 2020 COVID-19 pet boom brought five to seven new clients a day to her practice in Raleigh, North Carolina. Many are first-time pet owners.

Like many veterinarians across the country, she’s also been seeing more sick animals. To meet the demand, vets interviewed by The Associated Press have extended hours, hired additional staff and refused to take new patients, and they still can’t keep up. Burnout and fatigue are such a concern that some practices are hiring counselors to support their weary staffs.

“Everyone is working beyond capacity at this point,” said Krahn, who added evening hours last year.

Approximately 12.6 million U.S. households got a new pet last year after the pandemic was declared in March 2020, according to a COVID-19 Pulse Study by the American Pet Products Association.

Meanwhile, fewer people relinquished their pets in 2020, so they needed ongoing care, experts said. And as people worked from home and spent more time with their pets, they’ve had more opportunities to notice bumps, limps and other ailments that could typically go untreated.

Vets were already struggling to meet the pre-pandemic demand, with veterinary schools unable to churn out enough doctors and techs to fill the void.

Krahn left her North Carolina practice three months ago and now oversees nine veterinary and animal hospital clinics across Utah and Idaho under Pathway Vet Alliance.

“All of my practices are booking out several weeks in advance. Clients are actually calling around and scheduling appointments at multiple locations,” and even resorting to emergency care facilities, she said.

Banfield Pet Hospital, one of the largest national providers of preventive veterinary medicine, had approximately half a million more pet visits in 2020 than in 2019. And its telehealth service more than doubled in volume from March through the end of last year.

Thrive, another veterinary hospital primary care group, with 110 facilities across the U.S., reported a 20% increase in demand during the pandemic. Both repeated a common refrain — as humans spent more time with their pets, they were more in tune with their ailments — big and small.

“With COVID, a lot of people became powerless to the ones closest to them,” said Claire Pickens, a senior director at Thrive, “but the one thing they still had the ability to control was caring for their pet.”

Clinics have been forced to streamline, having patients fill out forms online or by phone pre-appointment because hiring additional staff often isn’t an option.

“The industry is growing at a rate that it can’t fill all the roles needed to keep up with the increased demand for services,” said Pickens.

Veterinary positions are projected to grow 16% by 2029, nearly four times the average of most other occupations, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. Vet tech jobs are expected to increase nearly 20% in the next five years.

“We are still short staffed despite active seeking of additional staff,” said Dr. Katarzyna Ferry, Veterinary Specialty Hospital of Palm Beach Gardens.

Verg, a 24-hour emergency and specialty hospital in Brooklyn, reported a 40% jump in emergency care since the pandemic began. That’s also meant more pet hospitalizations, straining various specialties like surgery and cardiology.

“The demand continues to grow,” causing extreme weariness in a profession known for its big-hearted workers, said Verg’s chief medical officer, Dr. Brett Levitzke.

“Fear of the unknown with the pandemic leads to more intense emotions from our clients,” said Levitzke. He’s seen expletive-laced outbursts and threats from pet owners, and also outpourings of love, with cards and baked goods. After the toll on the staff became noticeable, they hired a compassion fatigue specialist for support.

“Unfortunately, compassion fatigue, anxiety, and depression already plagued our profession, and the pandemic has certainly taken it to another level,” Levitzke said.

Krahn said she sold her North Carolina practice to Pathway and later took an administrative role with the company in part to provide practical and emotional support to veterinarians, knowing the toll first-hand.

“As veterinarians, its our job to care, but we also take care of people through their animals,” said Krahn. “Doctors and support teams struggle with caring for themselves in a way that preserves them to be able to keep doing this.”

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9 thoughts on “COVID-19 pet boom has veterinarians backlogged, burned out

  1. Learned this first hand last month when we took our pet to the emergency vet & were informed we had to wait in the parking lot for a minimum of 6 hours before they could see us. Plus if we left for any reason we would lose our place in line.

  2. Yikes, prices will be going up bigtime then. I’m already pretty selective about going so prices going up will only make me even more selective on when to go.

  3. Vets who over charge, take advantage of human love for their animals, then during covid oh don’t come inside, no I dont feel their pain. They will be the last to fully open, get back to normal business.

    1. Doug, I know what you mean. I absolutely despise the wait in your car while the vet sees your pet and calls you routine and yes it’s still going on. I’m starting to think that system is not about COVID safety and more about not having to see and deal with people face to face even though our pets would be much more comfortable in us being with them. It’s time to end that nonsense and require masks if you must, but let us come in with our pets.

    2. The “don’t come inside” part was tough at the emergency vet. I trust my regular vet to do the right thing whether we’re in there or not but the emergency vet keep us waiting for hours which was ridiculous.

      Their diagnosis was drastic & our vet disagreed with the diagnosis and saved our pet a lot of pain and recovery and us a lot of unnecessary expense.

    3. RE, I’m glad you were able to get a second opinion from your trusted vet and it worked out. I hope your beloved pet wasn’t in a lot of pain for that six hours you waited. I couldn’t imagine needing to go to the emergency vet and having to wait six hours, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of those type places around this area. We clearly don’t have enough of them if that’s the case.

  4. This article completely leaves out the fact that vets make up a disproportional amount of suicides each year and have for years. It’s never been an easy job.

    1. That is tragic and speaks to how many of them truly care about their patients which I’m sure is why they became vets in the first place. It certainly is not an easy job and I don’t envy their current workloads. I’m sure it will be years before they get enough to cover.

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