Millions of ‘pandemic pets’ adopted, shortage of veterinarians to care for them
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Mission Animal Hospital in Eden Prairie is a busy place these days.
"I would say in the veterinarian industry right now, it is a perfect storm," says Dr. Susan Miller, Mission’s executive director and founder. "We see 80-100 pets per day across our urgent care, across our appointments, and our surgery service."
Miller says that’s a 25% increase compared to before the pandemic.
Her 60-70-person staff is now grappling with a pandemic pet surge.
"We don’t have enough doctors seeing pets, and they’re getting to capacity," she says. "So we have a lot of people who’ve walked through our doors who’ve been turned away. One of our goals is to make sure we’re open and we can see walk-in clients."
Miller says Mission is a non-profit hospital that relies on donors.
Right now, she and her staff see about 30-40 walk-ins a day.
That includes Sage Engle-Laird, of Minneapolis, who brought in her 2-year-old Aussiedoodle Caspian, overdue for an anti-rabies shot.
Engle-Laird says there was also a problem with Caspian’s left leg — but getting help was a problem.
"We have a vet down the street from us, but we couldn’t get in with him, and I’m pretty sure it was going to be expensive," she says. “We were told to go to an urgent care. We were out all day, and they would probably fit him in, but we didn’t have the time to sit all day."
As a staffer began examining Caspian’s leg, Engle-Laird explained how the Aussiedoodle moved into her house in April of 2020.
"We couldn’t go to dog parks because of the quarantine, so we decided to get a second dog and let them entertain each other," she smiled. "I was fortunate that I had my partner with me during quarantine, but I can’t imagine being by yourself, locked up at home for such a long period of time."
Engle-Laird isn’t alone.
The ASPCA says 23-million American households — one in every five — have adopted a pet since the beginning of the pandemic.
Veterinarians like Dr. Eric Ruhland, owner of the St. Paul Pet Hospitals, say it’s hard to keep up.
He notes in the past year, his pet patient load has doubled, with non-emergency appointment waits of three to four weeks.
"You know, most practices, particularly in the metro area are overrun right now," he says. "That is pushing the preventative care appointments, the vaccines, the simple things, blood draws, are being pushed back a long way. Appointments are taking longer."
Ruhland says he also has a smaller staff: What was a group of 56 people pre-pandemic is now only 38.
The pressures are taking a toll.
Ruhland says his team members can utilize the services of a selected mental health professional for free.
"I was watching staff members emotionally breaking down between the number of cases," he says. "You take a staff and you go from a euthanasia to a new puppy appointment. You’re watching these staff members go through an emotional roller-coaster."
There are some encouraging signs.
The Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine says there are now 3,284 veterinarians holding active licenses to practice in the state.
The board says in 2021, 198 new licenses were issued — 31 more than the year before.
Still, Miller says there are veterinarians out there who are burned out and leaving the business because of stress.
"We’re calling it the great resignation across society right now," she says. "So when we see that pet after pet after pet, hour after hour throughout the day, of course, that can cause compassion fatigue, which is something we try to combat."
That includes taking care of her staff, Miller says.
"Making sure they have access to mental health care, making sure that we celebrate the good things that happen," she declares. "We have a lot of good things happen here as well, but when you’re dealing with sick pets all the time, it can be stressful."
Miller says Mission is now offering health care benefits to staffers and is encouraging them to take mental health days when needed.
There are also plans to bring in a health and wellness coach for one-on-one meetings with staff.
Mission is also planning to add social workers, who’d be available to both clients and staff.
Both Miller and Ruhland say they want to expand, but that it’s hard to find new hires.
Ruhland says his practice is dealing with yet another issue: Positive COVID-19 cases directly impacting his staff.
"As of today, we have five staff members out with close COVID contact," he notes. "And I have three staff members out that are COVID positive, just in the last 24 hours."
Ruhland says with all that’s happening, there may be opportunities for a new generation of people interested in veterinary medicine.
"If I could hire another 25 people, I would have done it yesterday," he says. "If people are interested in a profession, there’s never been a better time to look at veterinary medicine as a career, not only in the interim, but as a long-term career, it’s extremely rewarding."
And as for Caspian?
It turns out he has a hairline fracture in his foot, nothing serious.
But Miller says a cure for this pet-vet imbalance will take some time to fix.
"I think it’s going to be a few years until we’re back to whatever our new normal is," she says. "More patients doesn’t necessarily mean more veterinarians, or more technicians, or more people in our industry. I think it’s going to take some time to catch up, and for people to sort of have expectations realigned to the service that’s possible out there."
You can find more information about Mission Animal Hospital here.
More information about the St. Paul Pet Hospitals is here.