One of the best things to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is the emptying of animal shelters around the country. Although pet adoption numbers were the lowest they had been in the last five years, this was because homeless pets were unavailable. Fewer pets were entering shelters, and those who did were instantly snatched up, because people wanted companions during the isolating pandemic. Cats and dogs reaped the benefits of quarantine and lockdown protocols, and became the ideal coworkers for employees who shifted to working remotely.
However, with the influx of pets finding new homes and increased time spent with pets, veterinary practices were overwhelmed with the demand for pet care. Although we are delighted to see that 23 million American households acquired a new pet during the pandemic, we were—and still are—struggling to provide veterinary care to the pets in our community. Because of the overload, you may have to wait a considerable amount of time for your pet’s appointment, rather than being able to call and be seen in a day or two. We understand that’s frustrating, and want to explain why the situation has escalated.
Pandemic protocols slashed efficiency and productivity
To keep our team, clients, and patients safe, we implemented social distancing measures and rigorous cleaning protocols. We introduced curbside care, to reduce face-to-face interaction and minimize the number of people inside our facility, but our efficiency took a hit. According to data from the AVMA Census of Veterinarians and Veterinary Practice Owners, veterinarians saw fewer patients per hour and average productivity declined by almost 25% in 2020, compared with 2019. Appointments took much longer, because our team would have to run back and forth to the parking lot, and we’d have to call clients multiple times to discuss their pet’s care. So, instead of your standard wellness visit taking a half hour in our hospital, you may wait in the parking lot for an hour or more as we complete all the necessary tasks to care for your pet. However, we considered the new system a fair trade-off, since we were keeping our community safe and healthy.
Pets received more attention and a greater slice of the budget
With people spending more time at home and turning to their pets for companionship during quarantine and lockdown measures, pets received a great deal more attention. The pet’s tiny issues became enormous problems, when owners had nothing else to focus on, and conditions that could wait for examination and treatment became emergencies. While we understand that any issue with a pet can be cause for concern, problems that could wait overwhelmed our appointment calendar, and reduced our availability for true emergencies.
In addition to people discovering more issues with their pets, they had more disposable income to spend on their care. Stimulus checks and reduced living expenses through eating at home and not driving freed up more of the monthly budget, which was often allocated to veterinary care, toys, treats, and other pet supplies. So, a stimulus check made the dental cleaning that we recommended six months ago now feasible, and pet owners did not waste the opportunity.
Wellness care was postponed
Many pets’ wellness care was postponed at the height of the pandemic, perhaps because veterinary practices were shut down because of staffing shortages, or pet owners were unable to take their pets for preventive care. This led to a massive backlog in wellness care, and veterinarians are still attempting to catch up. Elective procedures, like spays and neuters, were also postponed, so personal protective equipment (PPE) could be saved for human hospitals. As veterinary practices try to handle pandemic protocols, staffing shortages, and backordered supplies, they’re attempting to catch up on wellness care, while still seeing sick and injured pets.
Veterinary hospitals struggled with staffing shortages
Staffing shortages in the veterinary industry have been ongoing, and have worsened with the pandemic. Too few veterinary professionals are entering the workforce to keep up with demand, and more and more professionals are leaving the field. In fact, a veterinary technician’s career span averages only five years before they choose a different career path. Veterinary professionals struggle greatly with burnout and compassion fatigue, and have one of the highest suicide rates among all professions. Heightened tensions, increased workload, inadequate staffing, and the constant threat of illness have contributed to veterinary burnout, which has only reduced our profession’s ability to care for pets.
Whether or not we’re in the midst of a pandemic, you can always count on your Homestead Animal Hospital team to strive to provide the best care possible. Please be patient with us as we endeavor to cope with our overwhelming caseload, and treat all pets in a timely manner. Don’t hesitate to give us a call to schedule an appointment—well in advance! We’d appreciate it!