COVID Puppies and Delayed Pet Care: Ohio's Veterinarian Shortage
Pet adoptions skyrocketed 34% in the spring of 2020 with people welcoming home new so-called COVID puppies and kittens.
Couple that with many owners choosing to delay pet care during lockdowns and you have an industry that’s stretched to the brink across Ohio and the nation.
If you call to schedule a basic wellness visit for your pet, don’t be surprised if you’re looking at a three-week wait.
“No question that’s taking place in the state of Ohio, taking place nationally,” Jack Advent said. He’s the executive director of the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association.
“People were saying, ‘You know, I’m home. Maybe I’ve always wanted a dog or cat and I’m going to do that now. Somebody to help keep me company during a difficult time.’”
So you have an increased number of new pets who need vaccines, heartworm meds or flea and tick prevention.
Add to that all the deferred wellness visits for pets whose owners put off visits during lockdowns, and there just aren’t enough veterinarians to go around.
Veterinarians are swamped
Walking into For Paws Animal Hospital in North Canton your ears are instantly filled the sounds of barking and phones ringing off the hook.
Dr. Jennifer Jellison, who opened the practice about 10 years ago, leads me to a back room with wall-to-wall kennels, full of dogs and cats that need attention.
One dog is bleeding from its face with an IV bag hanging inside its kennel.
“Basically most of these came in today and called and said I have to get in ASAP,” Jellison said.
“And then there's these.”
She holds up a thick stack of messages about other animals that need care. They may or may not get in.
“So just to kind of give you a heads up of like what my day is like. And then I see patients every 15 minutes till 6:00 o'clock. So there's probably another 30 that I'll see on top of all,” Jellison said.
She’ll see around 45 patients today, up from the 25-30 animals she would see on an average day pre-pandemic.
“So, we’re seeing a lot more. But what’s more important is a year ago I could have gotten them all in. I can’t get them in. I don’t know where to put them," she said. "I truthfully don’t know how to say no to them because we’re compassionate and perfectionists by nature. So you want to help them, but by the same token this is 45 problems that you have to solve.”
The workforce supply chain
Dr. Rustin Moore is the dean of the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, one of the largest vet schools in the country.
He said while the workload has gone up, the workforce hasn’t.
“And so that just means longer days, more appointments,” he said.
Even before the pandemic, Moore said veterinary school applications have been rising, but many programs don’t have the means or ability to grow their class sizes at the same rate.
“I don't believe it's possible in a short period of time to address the veterinary shortage because of the pipeline and the amount of time it takes. You know, if somebody enters veterinary school this fall, it's going to be four years before they've graduated,” Moore said.
Add to that the fact that veterinary technicians, the people who help practices run smoothly and efficiently, are burning out at a rapid rate.
“About 50% of veterinary technicians or nurses actually leave the profession in the first five to six years,” he said.
According to Moore, technicians are chronically underpaid and underutilized, often saddled with doing basic tasks.
He said veterinarians need to trust their techs to be able to do more.
“Most ideally utilize a veterinary technician for their practice because they can see more cases and they can be more productive and profitable, which means they can also deal, hopefully, with the second issue, which is increased the salaries of veterinary technicians,” he said.
Mental health care for veterinarians
Another priority is for veterinarians to prioritize mental health care in the profession.
It’s something that Moore’s program at Ohio State has made a top priority.
“There is a mandatory seven week program called Mind Strong, which is a basically a resiliency and coping skill-building program,” Moore said.
They also have two full-time counselors on site for students to be able to utilize, as well as a part-time psychiatrist.
“(It’s) hard to destigmatize mental health and let people know that mental health is in some ways no different than, say, diabetes. It's something you have to manage,” Moore said.
“I would use the word rampant in my profession. I don't have any qualms saying I personally have dealt with it, for sure,” she said.
Harriman thinks most vets have trouble saying “no,” to the point of overwork and exhaustion.
“Because we really care about helping out the pet and certainly if they're sick or something needs to be addressed, it's very difficult to say, ‘No, I'm full today,’” she said.
She said in the long run getting in as many patients as humanly possible isn’t the answer to this vet shortage.
“Sometimes we will pack it and see as many as we can in the day. If you add more onto that then that's less quality care that you can give to each one of your patients that's already scheduled,” Harriman said.
Her practice has embraced curbside visits, telemedicine for some non-emergency services, and clear workload and boundary setting for staff.
They even have a drive-up window for medication pick up just like a pharmacy.
“You have to be able to take care of yourself and your staff, or you won’t be there to take care of the pets that you want to care for,” Harriman said.
She sees eventually embracing augmented schedules, having a mixture of online, drop off and in-person pet care becoming the industry standard.
It’s a world where you may be able to use an app to send your veterinarian a message or photo and have someone call you back, just like a lot of human health care systems already use.
“Even if it's not the ideal time for this to happen because of all the other challenges going on, I think that's inherently going to play a role in how we rethink how we do our business, right?” she said.
Playing the waiting game
But pretty much everyone I talked with said the same thing: It’s going to take time for this industry to be able to catch up.
Until then, Jellison urges pet owners to be patient and respectful.
“Well, if (your pet is) healthy, be willing to wait the three weeks. Try not to get irritated. Know that it's everyone," she said. "If it's not healthy, the ERs are always taking people. So don't wait simply because you can't get into a regular veterinarian. The ERs will see you eventually, and just like a human you may have to wait six or eight hours and your pet should be worth that.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story mis-stated Dr. Moore's first name.