COVID-19 and the Veterinary Industry: Why is it so hard to get an appointment right now?!
COVID has taxed the veterinary industry in a way we could never have predicted. When the pandemic began, projections were that vets would be struggling to remain open as people would spend less on their pets as they allocated funds to their own survival after job losses. In reality, the opposite happened and in a short amount of time, 2020 created the perfect storm of too many animals needing help and not enough people to help them.
When the stay at home orders first went into effect, we started to see more puppies. Vets went from seeing one puppy a week to two to three a day. After several weeks, we were getting overrun with new puppies and new pets in general.
For some people, getting a new pet was already in the works and they just bumped up the timing of that adoption. It made sense! The shelter-in-place order forced most people to be at home and freed up a lot of time for training and all of the extra work that comes with puppyhood. For others, isolation created a lonely void. When you can’t see other people, animals are desperately needed companions.
You wouldn’t think that there would be a busy season for veterinarians. But in the summer months, we are about 10% to 20% busier than in the winter. Pets are outdoors more so we see more cat fight injuries, injuries from running around the hiking trails and skin infections from swimming in the lakes. With COVID travel restrictions, these scenarios increased exponentially as people couldn’t do their normal summer travel and instead took to their own backyards with their pets.
Even before COVID, the veterinary industry was perpetually short staffed. It takes eight years to make a veterinarian; there are 5 veterinary schools in Canada, each new class accepting between 65 and 100 students. That is roughly 400 new vets per year to serve about 6 million pets (based on 58% of Canadian households having at least 1 dog or cat). Certified veterinary technicians go to school for two years. Even for non-degreed positions at the veterinary clinic, it takes six to 18 months to feel skilled at the job. Once these highly trained individuals are in the positions, they deal with intense working conditions and face high levels of burnout due to compassion fatigue, poor treatment from clients and high dept to income ratio. Veterinarians and veterinary staff face the highest suicide of any profession and many of the factors contributing to this lead to low industry retention.
When veterinary staff are not able to come to work, it is not easy to replace them. Right now, there are fewer people to provide services for more animals and it means many animals do not get the care they need despite the industries best efforts. There are just not enough of us.
Many clinics respond to the challenges above by putting a pause on seeing new clients. Unfortunately that means that there are fewer places for an animal in need to go.
If a general practitioner can’t see a patient, then the only option is the emergency clinic. This means that the local ERs get overloaded with urgent care needs (ie health issues that need prompt addressing but that do not necessarily require emergency care). This means huge wait times (up to 10 hours on bad days) while, for example, a dog with an ear infection gets bumped over and over again for the more unstable patients coming in (a cat hit by a car for example).
All of this is to say: We are trying our best! We do this job because we love your animals and want to help both you and them. Please be patient and kind to everyone. The industry is trying to rebound and come up with new ways to serve our communities better as we face these challenges together.