The coronavirus triggered a sweeping wave of pet adoptions in 2020, as millions of people who were stuck indoors turned to the companionship of dogs and cats to ease stress and anxiety. Yet, the COVID pandemic hasn’t been easy for veterinarians.
According to a study by the American Pet Products Association, approximately 12.6 million United States households adopted a new pet in 2020 after the pandemic was declared. In fact, the spiking number of pets moving to foster care or finding forever homes prompted a USA Today columnist to call the trend “a map to ending shelters as we know them.”
But while many animal shelters could cut back hours and operations dramatically, veterinarian practices across the country quickly became overwhelmed by all the new adoptions caused by COVID.
Vets have been forced to extend hours and hire new staff, but many still can’t keep up. The result has been extreme burnout and fatigue among vets and staff who were already struggling to keep up with patient needs before the pandemic.
Dr. Diona Krahn, who left her Raleigh veterinary practice in early 2021, told the Associated Press that she saw an average of five to seven new clients a day during the pandemic, compared to maybe three or four puppies a week previously.
Krahn is currently employed with Pathway Vet Alliance, where she oversees nine veterinary and animal hospital clinics across Utah and Idaho.
“All of my practices are booking out several weeks in advance,” Krahn said. “Clients are actually calling around and scheduling appointments at multiple locations.” Some, she said, are even resorting to emergency care facilities for non-life-threatening ailments.
To exacerbate an already taxed industry, fewer people surrendered their pets in 2020—which frequently occurs with family planning and job relocation, both of which also plummeted during the pandemic. And those who were working from home and spending more time with their pets became more aware of bumps, lumps, limps, and other conditions that might have otherwise gone unnoticed or untreated.
Banfield Pet Hospital, one of the largest national providers of preventive veterinary medicine, reported approximately 500,000 more pet visits in 2020 than in 2019, and its telehealth service more than doubled in volume. Thrive, a veterinary hospital primary care group with 110 facilities across the country, likewise saw a 20% increase in demand during the pandemic.
“With COVID-19, a lot of people became powerless to the ones closest to them,” Claire Pickens, a senior director at Thrive, told the AP. “But the one thing they still had the ability to control was caring for their pet.”
Many veterinarian practices were short-staffed even before COVID
The COVID pandemic only added additional strain to understaffed practices, as veterinary schools can barely keep up with the demand for doctors and vet techs.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterinary positions are projected to grow 16% by 2029—nearly four times the average of most other occupations—while vet tech jobs are expected to increase almost 20% in the next five years. But for now, it’s still just not enough.
“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,” added Pickens.
To adapt to the increase of clients and visits when hiring additional staff isn’t an option, some practices have streamlined their processes by having patients fill out online forms or by conducting pre-appointments over the phone.
“The demand continues to grow,” said Dr. Brett Levitzke, the chief medical officer of Verg, a 24-hour emergency and specialty hospital in Brooklyn. Like many other practices, Verg has experienced a 40% increase in emergency care since the beginning of the pandemic.
Levitzke said that the demand has caused “extreme weariness” in “a profession known for its big-hearted workers.” He said, “Unfortunately, compassion fatigue, anxiety, and depression already plagued our profession, and the pandemic has certainly taken it to another level.”