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Veterinarians And Pet Hospitals Are Overwhelmed By Backlog Of Appointments

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Kiley Koscinski
/
90.5 WESA
The wait time at PVSEC in the North Hills was eight hours on August 20, 2021. "Please be patient," the sign reads.

Sheri Santucci clocks at 7:30 a.m. every morning for her job as a veterinary nurse at Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center. But she’s never certain when she’ll leave the office.

It’s often 10 to 12 hours later.

“We’re exhausted,” she said. “There’s a lot of crying to and from work.”

A sign outside of the North Hills hospital indicates the wait time for a particular day. On a Friday in late August it read, “CURRENT ER WAIT TIME: 8 HRS. PLEASE BE PATIENT.”

PVSEC’s long wait times aren’t unique to the hospital. Veterinary offices across the nation have seen an increase in pet visits since the pandemic began.

It’s a tense time for an industry that was already plagued by high stress, burnout and alarming suicide rates.

“We were kind of joking today that we think everyone in our department is on anti-anxiety medicine,” Santucci said.

Santucci describes how things got this way as a domino effect. Most hospitals could always use another vet tech or two. But pandemic restrictions forced many general practice veterinarians to limit appointments and send their clients to hospitals for services instead. That flow of pet visits didn’t stop when things began opening back up.

The Pandemic Puppy Boom

The administrative work associated with each hospital visit has gotten more complicated during the pandemic, too. Many hospitals still complete paperwork over the phone while pet owners wait in their cars in the parking lot. Then vet techs come and collect the pet, leaving the owner in their car.

“I’d say [it’s] triple the amount of work that it used to be,” Santucci said.

Then there’s the pandemic puppy boom. Thousands of dogs found homes during lockdowns, but those new owners needed to schedule vet appointments for their new furry family members.

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Katie Blackley
Instead of vet clinic waiting rooms, many pet owners wait in their cars until their pet can be seen.

“Each new puppy became hours and hours of work on the part of the veterinary clinic and staff,” Dr. Larry Gerson, president of the Western Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association said. “You’ve got a visit every three to four weeks until their vaccines are up to date and then you’ve got to get them spayed or neutered.”

General veterinarians can see their schedules fill up in an hour on any given day, according to Gerson, who ran Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic before he retired in 2020. Because open appointments were already scarce, the puppy boom bogged down the whole veterinary system.

The surge in caseloads has forced hospitals to prioritize the most critical cases. That means pets with chronic issues or symptoms that can wait usually have to come back another day, which can lead to tense words from the pet owners on the other end of the phone.

Santucci said her coworkers regularly speak with customers who are screaming with desperation. But even prioritizing admittance to those with the most severe conditions hasn’t been enough to meet demand.

“We just get to the point where there’s no cages left,” she said. “Or there’s only so many E.R. doctors [compared] to patients. We just can’t do it.”

Several times a week, the hospital has to enact what Santucci referred to as a “service pause,” just to catch up on the animals already checked into the hospital. During a pause, no pets are admitted for care. Service pauses can last hours.

Both Santucci and Gerson say that for at least one day in August, all of the Pittsburgh-area emergency veterinary clinics paused their services at the same time.

Unprecedented Vet Visits

Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center (PVSEC) is owned by BluePearl Veterinary Partners, a company itself owned by Mars Inc. Representatives for BluePearl declined an interview request for this story.

But the company wrote about the unprecedented caseloads in its hospitals in a blog post earlier this year.

BluePearl’s 2020 veterinarian report found that its hospitals saw 200,000 more pets in 2020 compared to 2019. Of the 1.1 million pets the hospitals cared for in 2020, more than half were new clients.

In addition to more people getting pets, the report theorizes that people are making additional vet trips because they’re spending more time with their cat or dog as a result of the pandemic and noticing small behavioral changes.

“This shift in at-home dynamics, coupled with a rise in pet adoptions and an enhanced commitment to pet health, has led to a substantial uptick in visits to veterinary practices,” Paul Pratscher, director of Customer Experience and Insights at BluePearl said in the report.

The report also notes an increase in people seeking specialized or emergency care for their pet's worsening chronic or serious illness as a result of postponed wellness visits at their normal veterinarian.

Many vets and pet owners were forced to cancel wellness visits during state and federal government shutdowns due to the pandemic. Elective surgeries for humans were also postponed during this time.

Gerson said that led to a crush of bookings when things opened back up.

PVSEC is far from the only area vet hospital seeing an unprecedented caseload. Other area vet hospitals have statements on their websites warning clients about a shortage of appointments and new limits on walk-in appointments.

The Big Easy Animal Hospital in the North Side has limited availability and says it's directing critical care appointments to other area hospitals including PVSEC.

“During these challenging times, there have been some unforeseen changes at The Big Easy Animal Hospital. I cannot express enough my sincere apology for any inconvenience you have experienced at The Big Easy during these times,” Big Easy owner Dr. Aileen Ruiz writes in a statement on the hospital website.

Avets in Monroeville has also made public statements about the unprecedented demand the hospital is seeing and is prioritizing animals in critical condition.

A post on the hospital’s Facebook page reads:

“Our team is experiencing

  • Extended and extra shifts in order to be available when you need us most.
  • Exhaustion trying to keep up with the increased demand for our services.
  • Emotional stress because we are trying so hard to help every pet while experiencing frustration and lack of kindness.

Please be kind, respectful, and patient. We are all compassionate animal lovers and we are doing everything we can to take care of your pet!”
More Pets, Fewer Vets

While there are more and more pets to care for, the veterinary industry is bleeding workers.

“I know for a fact that a number of [local] clinics lost staff,” which stresses the remaining vet techs and veterinarians Gerson said. “That stresses the existing staff to meet demand and then somebody else says, ‘I can’t work here anymore. This is just too crazy.’”

Some of Santucci’s former coworkers left veterinary medicine for jobs in human medicine during the height of the pandemic.

“A lot of people are quitting and going back to nursing school,” she said.

Others, like Gerson himself, are retiring. One out of three veterinarians is a baby boomer and more than half are practice owners, according to data from the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Gerson, 71, was encouraged by his family to stop practicing during the height of the pandemic due to the risk the virus presented to him and his wife. He ultimately decided to retire permanently.

A recent report by the American Veterinary Medical Association cited the turnover as an industry-wide issue.

“Many hospitals are operating with fewer team members and dealing with higher turnover. Emergency clinics appear to be having an especially difficult time remaining fully staffed as they are inundated with a continuous stream of patients—both urgent and nonurgent cases,” the report reads.

But, the report illustrates reason to believe the current workload isn’t a so-called “new normal.”

“While there were more veterinary visits in 2021, it’s critical to note that we don’t yet know if these increases are permanent. It’s possible that temporary, cyclical economic factors are influencing demand—factors such as increased disposable income and owners spending more time at home with their pets,” it reads. “Additionally, the backlog caused by delayed veterinary services adds to the current demand for veterinary care.”

That doesn’t mean the everyday stress experienced by people like Santucci is going anywhere soon. She hopes if enough people learn about how stretched thin vets are these days, they’ll be a little more understanding about the wait times.

“Try to be kind to us and patient,” Santucci said. “We’re doing the best that we can.”