Not being able to schedule a veterinary appointment when you want is frustrating, but veterinarians are currently overloaded. Issues, such as increased caseloads, COVID-19 protocols, and staff shortages, are causing increased wait times for pet owners. Our American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)-accredited team at Cherry Knolls Veterinary Clinic answers some frequently asked questions about what is causing this veterinary overload, and the resultant longer wait times.

Question: How have COVID-19 protocols contributed to veterinary overload?

Answer: When COVID-19 began, the veterinary industry was faced with a completely unfamiliar predicament—we had to find a way to keep our staff and clients safe from the virus, while continuing to provide necessary care for our pet patients. This was not something we could solve overnight, and many practices actually had to close their doors for a time to figure out the logistics. Once appropriate COVID-19 protocols were established, the extra disinfecting and curbside appointments made seeing our usual number of patients per day impossible, which led to the postponement of some routine appointments and elective procedures, to allow us to see sick and injured pets. Now that the world is slowly returning to normal, we are having to find time to see these postponed routine appointments, while attempting to keep up with new appointments. 

Q: Are veterinarians seeing increased patient loads?

A: Yes. Several factors have contributed to veterinarians being inundated with an increase in caseloads. 

  • New pets — When forced to stay at home during the lockdown, many people decided to adopt or foster a new pet, as a way to help pass the time, and for companionship. An American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) poll showed that approximately 23 million American households obtained a new pet during the pandemic. These pandemic pets provided support to their owners during a difficult time, and their owners ensured they received appropriate veterinary care, contributing to our increased caseload. ASPCA’s poll also revealed that 90% of new dog owners and 85% of new cat owners plan to keep their new pet, meaning these pets will continue to need veterinary attention. When you are having a hard time scheduling an appointment, consider the wonderful fact that so many pets have found forever homes.
  • Pampered pets — Another positive result from the pandemic is more pet owners being able to work from home, and spend more time with their pets. This allowed them to recognize potential health problems, which they may not have noticed if they were away from home for most of the day. Fortunately, this meant that more issues were diagnosed in the early stages, when conditions are easier to treat, but these added cases increased our workload.
  • Well-to-do pets — Many people received stimulus payments during the pandemic, and many also saved money, since they weren’t going out to dinner or driving their cars. This extra cash allowed pet owners to spend money on procedures for their pets that they may not have been able to afford previously, contributing to an increase in our caseload.

Q: Are veterinary practices experiencing staff shortages?

A: Yes. During a time when we are experiencing an increase in workload, we are also struggling to fill staff shortages. These shortages are caused by several factors, including:

  • Infection — Veterinary professionals continue to work when infection rates are high, meaning they are at increased risk for COVID-19. When they become ill, they can’t work for at least 10 to 14 days. In addition, anyone who is exposed to the virus must quarantine, so they are unable to work.
  • Burnout — Before the pandemic, suicide rates among veterinary professionals were higher than the general public, and the pandemic has not helped the stress that veterinarians experience. Veterinarians typically have high self-expectations, and blame themselves when a case doesn’t go well. This tendency, combined with a high debt burden from veterinary school, emotional fatigue, and long hours, can cause veterinary professionals to struggle to maintain their mental health. Many cope by cutting back their work hours, or leaving the field to find less stressful work. This means fewer hands available to provide care for your pet.

Q: How can pet owners help overwhelmed veterinarians?

A: Our goal is to provide the best care possible for your pet, and you can take steps to help ensure we meet this objective by:

  • Scheduling in advance — Don’t wait until your pet is due for their vaccinations or annual wellness exam. Schedule these appointments well in advance, to ensure their routine health care needs are met. You don’t want your pet’s vaccination status to lapse if we can’t schedule an appointment quickly.
  • Recognizing abnormal behavior — Monitor your pet closely for behavior changes, such as decreased appetite, decreased energy levels, or irritability. These subtle changes can indicate a serious health problem. The sooner you call to schedule an appointment, the better we will be able to manage and treat your pet’s condition.
  • Packing your patience — Please realize we are doing the best we can to care for your pet, and be empathetic and patient when dealing with our staff. We will see your pet as quickly as possible, but unkind words aren’t helpful in this situation.
  • Following our veterinarians’ recommendations — Administering medications, parasite preventives, and other treatments as recommended by our veterinary team will help keep your pet healthy. Likewise, performing diagnostic testing when recommended, whether for a sick pet evaluation or wellness testing, will help us detect problems early, and prevent you from having to make an additional appointment.

Caring for your pet isn’t our profession, it’s our calling, and we are striving to do our best, despite the challenges we face. If your pet is exhibiting abnormal behavior, contact our Fear Free team at Cherry Knolls Veterinary Clinic, so we can schedule an appointment as soon as possible.