During the darkest stretches of the pandemic, Dr. Diona Krahn's veterinary clinic has been a festival of puppies, invaded by new four-legged patients. She typically had three to four new puppies a week, but between shelter adoptions and private purchases, the 19 covid-2020 pet boom brought five to seven new clients a day to her practice in Raleigh, Noth Carolina.
Many are first-time pet owners. Relations with the furry companions were strengthened thanks to the confinement. The loss of loved ones as a result of the virus also strengthened emotional ties with their pets.
Like many vets across the country, she has also been seeing more sick animals. To meet the demand, veterinarians interviewed by The Associated Press extended their hours, hired additional staff and refused to accept new patients, and are still unable to keep up.
Burnout and fatigue are such a concern that some practices are hiring counselors to support their weary staff. "Everyone is working beyond their capacity right now," said Krahn, who added night hours last year.
About 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 conducted by the American Pet Products Association.
Meanwhile, fewer people gave up their pets in 2020, requiring ongoing care, experts said.
And as people have been working from home and spending more time with their pets, they have had more opportunities to notice bumps, limps, and other ailments that are not normally treated.
Veterinarians were already struggling to meet pre-pandemic demand, and veterinary schools were unable to produce enough doctors and technicians to fill the gap. Krahn left her practice in North Carolina three months ago and now oversees nine veterinary and animal hospital clinics in Utah and Idaho under the Pathway Vet Alliance. “All my internships are booked several weeks in advance. Clients are actually calling and making appointments in various places, ”and even turning to emergency care centers, she said.
Banfield Pet Hospital, one of the nation's largest 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 to the end of last year.
Thrive, another primary care group from a veterinary hospital, with 110 facilities in the US, reported a 20% increase in demand during the pandemic. They both repeated a common refrain: As humans spent more time with their pets, they became more attuned to their ailments, large and small. "With covid, many people became powerless for those closest to them," said Claire Pickens, Thrive's senior director, "but the only thing they still had the ability to control was the care of their pet."
Clinics have been forced to streamline, having patients fill out forms online or over the phone before an appointment because hiring additional staff is often not an option. "The industry is growing at a rate that it cannot fill all the roles necessary to keep up with the increased demand for services," Pickens said.
Veterinary positions are projected to grow 16% by 2029, nearly four times the average for most other occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Veterinary technology jobs are expected to increase nearly 20% in the next five years. “We are still understaffed despite an active search for additional staff,” said Dr. Katarzyna Ferry, Palm Beach Gardens Veterinary Specialty Hospital.
Verg, a 24-hour emergency and specialty hospital in Brooklyn, reported a 40% increase in emergency care since the pandemic began. That also meant more pet hospitalizations, putting various specialties like surgery and cardiology to the test.
"The demand continues to grow," causing extreme exhaustion in a profession known to its big-hearted workers, said Verg Medical Director Dr. Brett Levitzke.
"Fear of the unknown with the pandemic leads to more intense emotions in our clients," Levitzke said. He has seen outbursts of expletives and threats from pet owners, and also outpourings of love, with cards and baked goods. After the staff cost was noticed, they hired a compassion fatigue specialist to support them.
"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 his North Carolina practice to Pathway and then took on a management role with the company, in part to provide practical and emotional support to veterinarians, knowing the toll firsthand.
"As veterinarians, our job is to care, but we also care for people through their animals," Krahn said. "Doctors and support teams struggle to take care of themselves in a way that preserves them so they can continue to do this." / AP