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COVID-19 pet boom has veterinarians backlogged, burned out

Brooklyn vet: 'Fear of the unknown' makes clients more intense

May 23, 2021 Kelli Kennedy, Associated Press

Veterinary clinics around the country, including Brooklyn, have been overrun by new four-legged patients, adding to stress among veterinarians and their staff.

Vets interviewed by the Associated Press have extended hours, hired additional staff and refused to take new patients, and they still can’t keep up. Burnout and fatigue are such a concern that some practices are hiring counselors to support their weary staffs.

Approximately 12.6 million U.S. households got a new pet last year after the pandemic was declared in March 2020, according to a COVID-19 Pulse Study by the American Pet Products Association.

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Meanwhile, fewer people relinquished their pets in 2020, so they needed ongoing care, experts said. And as people worked from home and spent more time with their pets, they’ve had more opportunities to notice ailments that could typically go untreated.

Verg (Veterinary Emergency and Referral Group), a 24-hour emergency and specialty animal hospital on Fourth Avenue in Gowanus, Brooklyn, reported a 40 percent jump in emergency care since the pandemic began. That’s also meant more pet hospitalizations, straining various specialties like surgery and cardiology.

“The demand continues to grow,” causing extreme weariness in a profession known for its big-hearted workers, said Verg’s chief medical officer, Dr. Brett Levitzke. 

“Fear of the unknown with the pandemic leads to more intense emotions from our clients,” said Levitzke. 

He’s seen expletive-laced outbursts and threats from pet owners, and also outpourings of love, with cards and baked goods. After the toll on the staff became noticeable, they hired a compassion fatigue specialist for support.

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“Unfortunately, compassion fatigue, anxiety, and depression already plagued our profession, and the pandemic has certainly taken it to another level,” Levitzke said.

Vets were already struggling to meet the pre-pandemic demand, with veterinary schools unable to churn out enough doctors and techs to fill the void.

Banfield Pet Hospital, one of the largest national providers of preventive veterinary medicine, which has a location on Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill, had approximately half a million more pet visits in 2020 than in 2019. And its telehealth service more than doubled in volume from March through the end of last year.

During the gloomiest stretches of the pandemic, Dr. Diona Krahn’s veterinary clinic in Raleigh, North Carolina, has been a puppy fest, overrun with new four-legged patients.

Typically, she’d get three or four new puppies a week, but between shelter adoptions and private purchases, the 2020 COVID-19 pet boom brought five to seven new clients a day to her practice. Many are first-time pet owners.

Like many veterinarians across the country, she’s also been seeing more sick animals. 

“Everyone is working beyond capacity at this point,” said Krahn, who added evening hours last year.

Krahn left her practice three months ago and now oversees nine veterinary and animal hospital clinics across Utah and Idaho under Pathway Vet Alliance. “All of my practices are booking out several weeks in advance.”

Thrive, another veterinary hospital primary care group, with 110 facilities across the U.S. but none in Brooklyn, reported a 20 percent increase in demand during the pandemic. Both repeated a common refrain — as humans spent more time with their pets, they were more in tune with their ailments — big and small.

“With COVID, a lot of people became powerless to the ones closest to them,” said Claire Pickens, a senior director at Thrive, “but the one thing they still had the ability to control was caring for their pet.”

Clinics have been forced to streamline, having patients fill out forms online or by phone pre-appointment because hiring additional staff often isn’t an option.

“The industry is growing at a rate that it can’t fill all the roles needed to keep up with the increased demand for services,” said Pickens.

Veterinary positions are projected to grow 16 percent by 2029, nearly four times the average of most other occupations, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. Vet tech jobs are expected to increase nearly 20 percent in the next five years.

“We are still short staffed despite active seeking of additional staff,” said Dr. Katarzyna Ferry, Veterinary Specialty Hospital of Palm Beach Gardens.


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