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Original Article – https://www.uscannenbergmedia.com/2022/02/24/los-angeles-pet-boom-hounds-already-struggling-pet-care-industry/

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Many pet hospitals and vets are struggling to catch up after the pandemic. (Photo by Alexandra Applegate)

By Alexandra ApplegateFebruary 24, 2022 at 6:48 pm PST

Veterinarian technicians, masked and covered in personal protective equipment, rush in and out of the pet hospitals across LA County, carrying pets from their owner’s cars to the hospital on both arms. They work as fast as they can, and yet long lines still form outside with humans and their restless pets’ colorful leashes dotting the sidewalk. The hospital’s phone seems to never stop ringing and veterinarians’ case loads stack higher and higher.

Despite nearly two years having passed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, if your dog starts drastically limping or your cat is suddenly experiencing shallow breathing, you may have to call more than a dozen pet hospitals to find one who is willing to see you.

When the pandemic shut down the world in 2020, many pet rescues celebrated empty cages because all their animals had found homes with the lonely Los Angelenos who desired companionship while locked up in their homes. The “pet boom” saw 12.6 million U.S. households adopt a new pet last year after March 2020, according to a study by the American Pet Products Association.

So, when pet hospitals wait lists’ filled up and some veterinarians refused to take new patients in 2021, many people assumed it’s because vets were treating more pets. Pet hospitals across LA County cited wait times of more than eight hours, multiple days or even weeks, without the option for a walk-in appointment. Unless a pet is in critical condition, many hospitals are still refusing to take new patients because of their backlog of waiting clients.

However, the pet care industry believes the “boom” may not have been as explosive as initial news reports suggested. Veterinary publication DVM360 found that the total number of pets adopted from shelters in 2020 was the lowest in the last five years. Largely because of the pandemic, less animals were brought into shelters by animal control, less people relinquished their pets and shelters received less pets from other countries, resulting in less adopted animals.

Yet despite these low adoption statistics, at pet hospitals, there seems to be a never-ending stream of furry patients in and out and the line outside never gets shorter.

Peter Weinstein, former executive director of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association (SCVMA), said SCVMA saw the revenue for pet care practices increase but the actual number of transactions did not go up at the same rate. To Weinstein, this indicated many hospitals were seeing the same number of pets, but people were bringing in their pets more often. COVID-related restrictions also forced vet staff to tend to their patients in inefficient manners to accommodate social distancing rules.

County social distancing regulations forced veterinarians to perform “curbside pick-up” and meet clients outside in their cars or only allow one customer indoors at a time. Many hospitals also split their staff between work areas or separated their work schedules to keep workers healthy, but slowed down regular processes.

With fewer employees manning the offices, the few on shift would have to pick up the slack. Strict lockdown directives also forced many vets to throw out their normal, in-person communication with staff and clients, forcing them to completely rethink the best way to get information to people through online chats, emails, phone calls and automated texts.

Fewer vet techs spent more time making multiple phone calls with one client, running back and forth between cars and the hospital all while ensuring they stayed six feet away from each other.

“So many different rules and regulation changes made it harder for us to be as efficient as we used to be,” said Melissa Tompkins, veterinary practice consultant at South Coast Veterinary Management Solutions. “Anytime it changed, we slowed down.”

People also had to cancel preventative and regular check-up appointments during the beginning of the pandemic because vets were declared essential businesses and only saw urgent cases. Weinstein said this often meant pets were sicker or in need of more intensive care when they were finally treated, “which slows the process down even further.”

All of this resulted in a less efficient industry. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reported that veterinarians saw fewer patients per hour and average productivity declined by almost a quarter in 2020. If a practice treated 100 patients per week in 2019, they’d only be able to see 75 per week in 2020 — causing the practice to be behind by at least 25 pets.

Tompkins also said more people were being hyper-vigilant about their pet’s health since they were working from home.

“People saw their dog scratching all the time or noticed a lump they otherwise may not have noticed,” said Tompkins. “You’re more likely to notice there’s something wrong with your dog [when you’re home more].”

As all of these factors compounded for more than a year and the cases quickly backed up, causing long waits and refusals to see new patients.

“Even once things started opening up, it’s been hard to catch up,” said executive director of SCVMA Jennifer Hawkins.

But, according to Weinstein, the pet care industry was already riddled with inefficiencies and the pandemic unearthed them in an “imperfect storm.”

A leashed industry

Even before the pandemic, Tompkins said the pet care industry was struggling to hire and retain employees. With an already understaffed industry, the pandemic exacerbated the unfilled gaps.

“Our current staff is having to work a lot of overtime or extra hours in order to compensate for the needed service,” said Hawkins.

Between January 2019 and May 2021, the AVMA reported there were 18 open positions for every one veterinarian seeking a job. On top of that, there were six open positions for every technician and vet assistant as well as 12 open for other pet care-related positions.

“We just weren’t prepared, on a global level, for the case management that we’ve had to deal with,” said Weinstein.

While veterinary school applications are up a whopping 19% for the 2021-22 school year, it’s a four year program and it will take time for students to start working at full capacity with animals.

“When somebody says to me, ‘Well why don’t we just make more veterinarians?’” said Weinstein. “I have to say, ‘What am I supposed to do? Crack some eggs, put them in a pan and make more vets?’”

Additionally, the staff the pet health care industry does have is increasingly female. For the 2021-2022 school year, 10 of the top vet schools in the country admitted more than 1,500 women into their programs but only 313 men. Even in 2021, women are more likely to have shorter career life spans because they play a greater role in raising children or supporting their families, according to the Center for American Progress. Some women, on average, take more part-time jobs, jobs with less time commitment or quit their careers once they have children.

“It’s not that women doctors aren’t good — they’re fantastic — but when universities do follow up studies, there’s shorter career lifespans for female vets,” said Alan Schulman, a veterinary surgeon at the Animal Medical Center of Southern California.

Schulman also believes the younger generations of vets are not as likely to prioritize their careers over other aspects of their lives and are therefore less willing to work extra hours, take on greater responsibilities and even take over practices from retiring vets.

A man stands outside a vet office with his dog.
Because of pandemic-related restrictions and overwhelmed pet hospitals, many clients have to wait for long periods in their cars or outside. (Photo by Alexandra Applegate)

Ruff working conditions

Unfortunately, veterinary medicine is notorious for its staff burning out and leaving. The field has always experienced high turnover rates, especially compared with other health care professions. Veterinarians leave the field around twice as often as physicians in the medical world and vet techs have one of the highest turnover rates of all health care positions.

Compassion fatigue, or the physical, emotional and psychological impact of caring for others, has always existed in the pet health care world. One big difference between human and pet health care is that veterinarians have the ability to euthanize animals when necessary — a responsibility that can take a toll on pet care professionals.

“Our field has suffered from compassion fatigue for a long time,” said Tompkins. “We see abuse and neglect cases just like someone who works in social services. And that burnout from not only watching the animals suffer but also dealing with the human emotion side of that can really wear on you.”

Many people get into pet health because of their love for animals, according to Tompkins, but they may not realize that most interactions with the animals may be under negative circumstances like cases with terminal illnesses.

A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study found that female veterinarians were 3.5 times more likely than the general U.S. population to commit suicide and male vets are 2.1 times more likely. Additionally, vet techs are five times more likely to commit suicide.

While the reasons for this issue may vary, pet care industry professionals acknowledge how difficult it can be to remain positive in their jobs, sometimes heightened by the necessary interactions with the animal’s owner.

“A lot of people in our field love animals a ton but they don’t necessarily love people in the same way,” said Tompkins. “And I don’t think that everybody realizes when they get into this field that this is a very people-centered field.”

As pandemic-related restrictions were loosened in LA County and available appointments at pet hospitals were still hard to find, Tompkins observed that pet owners did not always handle it well.

Tompkins said she has seen a client pull a gun on a hospital’s staff because he was waiting for 45 minutes. A colleague witnessed a client threaten to kill every staff member in that hospital because he was upset with the wait times.

“These are extreme cases, but these are the types of situations that are happening every day in animal hospitals,” said Tompkins. “People are threatening staff either physically or screaming at them, cussing at them and treating them horribly.”

Elizabeth Vleck, a vet tech at a Banfield Hospital in Seal Beach, noted the significant attentiveness of many pet owners can also contribute to staff’s worsening mental health.

“Hyper-vigilance can lead to jumping to conclusions that we’re not taking care of their pet properly,” Vleck said. “They’re a little bit more aggressive and that’s one of the major points of burnout.”

Paw-sible ways forward

Though many pet owners are frustrated with the long waits and inconsistent communication from their vets, this problem may not last. The pet care industry is slowly catching up on the routine appointments and client check-ups that were postponed during the pandemic.

While there are still many open positions in the pet industry, some large hospitals are hiring in record numbers. Joseph Campbell, external affairs director at VCA Hospitals — a national network of pet hospitals with more than 2,000 locations — noted in an email that VCA hired more than 5,400 associates to work in its hospitals in 2021, 400 more than they hired in 2020.

However, long-time vet Schulman is not sure if simply hiring more people will solve the problem.

“I truly believe that the answer to this is way more complicated and way deeper,” said Schulman. “If [the younger generation] doesn’t want to have any upward mobility, you’re going to see they’re not as dedicated and won’t work as hard. I don’t see them changing their outlook anytime soon and we’re going to see that.”

Another point of inefficiency is that vet techs are often under-utilized. Vet techs are qualified to handle routine blood draws, weighing, bandaging or other less intensive tasks but don’t always put this into practice, forcing the majority of the labor onto busy veterinarians.

“In human health care, we’ve become very dependent upon staff to deliver for the doctors but in veterinary medicine, we still have a very doctor-dependent business,” said Weinstein. “But I think the practice is starting to perfect its delivery model and better utilize their nursing staff.”

Many larger hospitals are investing in text messaging services or online live chats to help decrease in-person appointments. VCA noted their hospitals saw an 144% increase in live chat users in 2020, indicating more patients took advantage of online help in the face of lockdowns. Banfield also reported their live chat service volume more than doubled last year.

Though the pet care industry has problems to address internally, many pet care professionals believe their ability to properly care for their pets has not weakened in the face of these challenges.

“I know how people are in our field and they’re likely to run in front of a car to stop an animal from getting hit,” said Tompkins. “I know a lot of people feel they’re kind of diehard to help animals. So it would not be a conscious decision to not treat a pet or to not take care of them just because they’re overwhelmed.”

Pet care professionals simply request that pet owners try to be understanding during this stressful time for the industry.

“Veterinarians are doing the best that they can,” said Weinstein. “Just be patient because they really do care and they really do want to make a difference.”

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