There’s been a lot of talk in the media about how the COVID-19 pandemic changed pet ownership across the U.S. There have been several reports that suggest more people adopted pets during the pandemic than in years past, but that theory doesn’t exactly hold true.
Other factors have led to a perfect storm in the veterinary industry and many providers say they are feeling the heat.
What Happened During the Pandemic?
The American Veterinarian Medical Association is out with new data that reveals what has happened to animal clinics across the country. First off, the organization puts cold water on the theory that more people adopted pets during the pandemic. In reality, the data show that fewer people adopted pets from shelters during the health crisis.
Shelters and clinics took in fewer dogs and cats during the pandemic than in years past. Fewer people were giving up their pets for adoption while they were stuck at home. Animal control wasn’t collecting as many strays, and finally, spay-neuter programs have been more successful at keeping stray populations to a minimum.
It also took longer to adopt a pet during COVID-19. New safety regulations limited the number of people coming into shelters. Many clinics also switched to telehealth during the pandemic, which meant that fewer potential pet adopters could be accommodated.
Has Demand for Veterinarian Services Increased?
Yes. Even though there were fewer people adopting pets, demand for veterinarian services skyrocketed during the pandemic. The number of appointments jumped 4.5% from 2019 to 2020.
But all that extra business isn’t coming from new clients. The AVMA says most of these services went to existing clients throughout the pandemic. But studies show pet owners spent more per veterinarian visit than in 2019. The number of line items per appointment has expanded. Clients are asking for more products and services per pet, and average prices are going up as well.
Experts say the initial lockdown forced pet owners to put their concerns on the backburner. Many offices were closed or limited their services during the early days of the pandemic. This led to less preventative care that can reduce the rate of chronic conditions.
A Perfect Storm for Shelters and Clinics
Practices also suffered from a lack of productivity during the pandemic. The AVMA says productivity dropped around 25% across the veterinarian industry. New safety regulations and staff shortages reduced the number of patients the average vet can see per hour. Many clinics transitioned to curbside care, while others were forced to split workers into rotating teams to limit the number of people onsite. High turnover has also made it hard for facilities to keep up with the changing status quo.
Many pet owners have been turned away with sick animals in tow. Others report having to wait in long lines at animal hospitals.
A boost in demand for these services coupled with a lack of productivity has led to a jump in backlogs.
If a facility was used to seeing 100 patients a week before the pandemic, they are likely now catering to 105 patients per week, based on data from the AVMA. But a 25% lapse in productivity means they can only see around 78 patients a week.
Dr. Monica Mansfield of Massachusetts knows these challenges all too well. She remembers having animal-related nightmares during the early days of the pandemic.
“There were these vulnerable kittens in my basement, and I forgot to feed them,” Mansfield recalls. “I’d wake up, terrified. ‘Oh my gosh, the kittens! Where are they?’ I felt like I was missing details and forgetting things that were critical to a case – that were critical to an animal’s life.”
Her situation isn’t unique.
Dr. Lisa Kimball, also in Massachusetts, remembers trying to care for an elderly cat during the pandemic. Kimball knew that the cat needed 24-hour intravenous fluids and monitoring, but her general practice clinic isn’t set up to manage intensive-care patients overnight.
Kimball called to nearby facilities to see if they could take the cat, but neither was able to treat the patient in time. In the end, the cat had to be put to sleep.
“I’m not sure if the outcome would have been much different if she had gotten the emergency care she needed,” says Kimball. “But it wasn’t even an option.”
Dr. Diana Thomé, a companion animal veterinarian in Washington state, remembers worrying about the lack of business during the pandemic, but all those fears were for naught.
“Looking back on that time, I almost have to laugh at myself about how stressed I was that we might lose the business,” Thomé said. Instead, the lockdowns caused a ripple effect that continues today.
“For the first time ever in my 17-year-career, we have had periods where we have not been accepting new clients,” says Thomé. “Which is really hard for us because that means an animal is going without care in a lot of situations.”
Many providers have since left the profession or scaled back their hours due to the added stress. “Since the pandemic started, if we post a position, we’ll be lucky to get a qualified applicant,” says Thomé.
Kasey Littlefield, a veterinary technician who works at clinics in Los Angeles, said, “It overwhelmed us very quickly,” regarding the pandemic.
Littlefield says she’s seen her fair share of disgruntled pet owners.
“I had a client, just last Saturday, who threw a milkshake at the front window,” says Littlefield, chuckling in disbelief.
She remembers having her back up against the clinic’s door when turning away a patient. “I was able to duck in and lock the door behind me,” Littlefield says. “That was the first time I’d had a client get in my face, physically threatening me like that.”
Overall, “There’s been a lot of anger, a lot of verbal abuse, especially towards the staff at the front,” Littlefield added.
These problems probably aren’t going away any time soon. In the meantime, pet owners and vets will just have to learn how to be patient.
“I hope people know that we’re here to help them,” says Littlefield. “And we appreciate any patience and grace they can give us.”