Early in the pandemic, Dr Monica Mansfield, a veterinarian based in Medway, Massachusetts, became haunted by a recurring nightmare.
“There were these vulnerable kittens in my basement, and I forgot to feed them,” Mansfield recalls. “I’d wake up, terrified. ‘Oh my gosh, the kittens! Where are they?’ I felt like I was missing details and forgetting things that were critical to a case – that were critical to an animal’s life.”
Mansfield took the hint from her subconscious and extended her workday hours. She decided she’d rather work longer days to keep up with patient needs, for her own peace of mind.
Veterinary workers might recognize Mansfield’s kitten care nightmares as a sign of the times.
Throughout the pandemic, vet staff have endured spikes in demand for services alongside slowed-down curbside protocols, labor shortages and appointment backlogs. The array of overlapping circumstances has created a cascade of problems powerful enough to threaten the entire delicate ecosystem of veterinary care.
For pet owners, it translates to a fiasco of crowded animal hospitals and long appointment wait times. Some have even been turned away from veterinary offices with sick animals in tow. Altogether, the situation has created something of a perfect storm – causing heartbreak and frustration for pet owners and veterinary personnel alike.
Dr Lisa Kimball, a veterinarian based in Hingham, Massachusetts, recalls an incident involving an elderly patient –a cat – who was running a high fever and not responding to antibiotics. Kimball knew that the situation called for 24-hour intravenous fluids and monitoring, if there was any hope for the cat’s survival. But her general practice clinic isn’t set up to manage intensive-care patients.
Kimball called two different emergency clinics, but neither would be able to treat her patient in time. In the end, the cat had to be put to sleep.
“I’m not sure if the outcome would have been much different if she had gotten the emergency care she needed,” says Kimball. “But it wasn’t even an option.”
Emergency veterinary capacity has been strained since the early days of the pandemic, when many clinics across the country were open only for urgent care cases. For some hospitals, it was a period of downright quiet. “Looking back on that time, I almost have to laugh at myself about how stressed I was that we might lose the business,” says Dr Diana Thomé, a companion animal veterinarian based in Richland, Washington.
Instead, that initial lull caused a ripple effect that persists to this day. Lockdowns limited services, which created bottlenecks in preventative care. When services were restored, pandemic safety protocols hampered vets’ ability to make up for lost time. All the while, backlogs at emergency hospitals trickled down to general practice clinics.
“For the first time ever in my 17-year-career, we have had periods where we have not been accepting new clients,” says Thomé. “Which is really hard for us because that means an animal is going without care in a lot of situations.”
Meanwhile, more and more pet owners sought out emergency vet services to treat acute complaints like ear or bladder infections – ailments that aren’t necessarily life-threatening, but are nonetheless painful for pets.
“It overwhelmed us very quickly,” says Kasey Littlefield, a veterinary technician who works at emergency clinics in Los Angeles county. The deluge has yet to let up.
Some blame spikes in pet ownership for the ongoing debacle. But the American Veterinary Medical Association found that nationally, pet adoptions from shelters were actually lower in 2020 than they have been in five years. A higher proportion of adoptable rescue pets found homes, but there were fewer animals up for adoption in the first place because of shelter closures and decreased pet surrenders.
Labor shortages play a role. Vet staff, predominantly female, have had to juggle childcare and work; Kimball now works just two days a week to balance demands at home. Others, burned out by the high stress of the past 18 months or seeking higher paying jobs, have reduced hours or left the profession entirely.
The AVMA notes that staff attrition is historically high in veterinary medicine, especially among vet techs. “Since the pandemic started, if we post a position, we’ll be lucky to get a qualified applicant,” says Thomé.
“I had a client, just last Saturday, who threw a milkshake at the front window,” says Littlefield, chuckling in disbelief.
Sometimes, the confrontations turn physical. Littlefield recalls an incident last year when she was backed against the clinic’s front door by a client whose pet she had to turn away. “I was able to duck in and lock the door behind me,” she says. “That was the first time I’d had a client get in my face, physically threatening me like that.”
Overall, Littlefield says, “There’s been a lot of anger, a lot of verbal abuse, especially towards the staff at the front.”
Kimball notes that it’s often the front desk staff who have to give clients bad news – and having to tell people so often there’s a wait for an appointment wears them down. “People that are normally very happy and perky and kind of roll with the punches – you can see the strain on them now,” she says.
Liz Hughston, the president of the National Veterinary Professionals Union, says that across the board, veterinary staff tend to have a stoic attitude toward client outbursts. “People are just willing to accept those things because we love what we do,” she says .
The compounding pressure does, however, take a toll. Jamie Falzone, the executive director of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association, says that in a recent survey, almost all the organization’s members reported a dramatic increase in stress. This stress is in addition to the mental health challenges that have always faced veterinary staff. Pre-pandemic, veterinary professionals were at a much higher risk of suicide than the general population. While US data is limited on the current state of affairs, some insight can be gleaned across national borders; in a recent industry-wide survey of Canadian veterinarians, about 26% reported suicidal ideation over the first 12 months of the pandemic.
The stress of the profession boils down to what veterinary staff and pet owners have in common: They love their furry and feathered clients, and genuinely want to provide care. Vets also empathize with the humans who are entrusting them with the health of their beloved companions.
“We rejoice and embrace the puppies and the rescue dogs – the new lights of people’s lives,” says Mansfield.
She often reminds her staff – and herself – that they need to practice patience. “I always try to understand that people are coming from different places,” she says.
But in a profession already under immense strain, veterinary clinic staff could also use some of that consideration coming from the public, in return.
“I hope people know that we’re here to help them,” says Littlefield. “And we appreciate any patience and grace they can give us.”