As a part-time dog walker and trainer, I started noticing the pandemic pet phenomena early on. The ‘Stay Home, Stay Healthy’ order had begun on March 23rd, 2020, and by April, I was getting many calls from new pup parents needing help with newly adopted dogs.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to work as a dog walker until May 1st and as a dog trainer until June under Governor Inslee’s phased approach to reopening to Washington State. It became increasingly clear that was a problem.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals(ASPCA) recently released data from a poll showing that close to one in five households acquired a cat or dog since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, which would account for approximately 23 million American households based on the 2019 U.S. Census.
Everyone in the pet industry feared this sudden influx of pets might have a detrimental effect on pet ownership. As we saw all these new pet acquisitions early in the pandemic, we might see those same pets being abandoned at shelters as everyone started going back to work.
Fortunately, that doesn’t appear to be happening, showing our bond with animals is as strong as ever. Still, this influx of animals appears to have exacerbated the problems of an overworked and understaffed veterinary community.
Tales started coming out from all over the country as early as this past spring of regular veterinary appointments being increasingly hard to come by, long drives to find open pet emergency rooms, hours-long wait times once you arrived and specialists booked out for weeks.
One local groomer tells a harrowing tale of a client’s daughter who had a Golden Retriever puppy for two days, and while playing in the yard, the owner slipped on wet grass and fell on top of the puppy.
They waited in the ER for four hours with the puppy howling in pain with what was thought to be a dislocated hip. After calling numerous other clinics and driving three hours to be seen, the injury turned out to be a broken hip. They then found out the surgery specialist clinic is booking 2 weeks out, so the puppy is on crate rest, round-the-clock pain meds, and devastated the family.
Wanting to know why this is happening, I spoke to my friend Chris who works locally as a vet assistant and to Dr. Carissa Brandt, DVM, who works at Snoqualmie Ridge Veterinary Hospital, to ask some questions.
When asked why people have to wait long hours for emergency pet care or being turned away from emergency vet facilities, Chris noted that vet clinics were understaffed before the pandemic. With Covid, the issue has become worse.
Says Chris, “Covid is still a reality. Employees may still have to quarantine for a variety of Covid related issues, making a short staff even shorter. Add to that, there are many new pets and new pet owners out there who have more questions and make more mistakes. Also, some emergency services, like Alpine Animal Hospital’s ER, had closed down pre-Covid, and you have long wait times.”
Dr. Brandt agrees to add veterinarians can be in short supply for several reasons, including older vets simply retiring, compassion fatigue, the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of helping others, or switching careers due to the pressures of enormous student debt. She adds that, in general, vet techs have a high turnover rate due to decreased pay, compassion fatigue and long hours, causing more staffing issues.
My next question was, what can pet parents do if they have an emergency? Both agreed first to make sure it’s a real emergency. Just like human ERs, non-emergencies can slow things down. If you aren’t sure you need to go in, call your vet or an emergency vet.
Right now, you must be willing to call around and drive. Chris recently had a pet emergency, was turned away from multiple vets and ended up at South Seattle Veterinary in Burien. No one closer could get him in. Dr. Brandt tells of a similar issue with her own pet. Have a list of emergency vets before an emergency hits. Two resources for Western Washington are:
Recently I personally have seen services pop up on social media offering Veterinary Telemedicine Services and asked Dr. Brandt what she thought. While she couldn’t recommend them specifically, not knowing what they’re all about, she, like me, was intrigued by the concept noting they could be helpful to triage (assign urgency to a condition) pets, possibly helping owners decide whether to go in or not.
Additionally, pet poison control helplines can also help provide valuable information to help parents recognize and protect their pets from poisonous substances, including plants, human foods, human medications and more. There will likely be a fee, but it may save you money and time in this time of crisis.
So, is there anything we all can do to avoid an emergency in the first place? Dr. Brandt stressed how important it is to have a valid patient/client relationship with your vet and keep updated on your pet’s wellness exams each year. Dog owners seem to be better at doing this than cat owners, but everyone should have a vet they see at least once a year.
If your vet is familiar with your animal, you will be better positioned to see your vet if something unexpected happens. They will know the animal’s history and be better able to decide how quickly you need to be seen.
Chris agrees to say, “Make sure your pet is getting routine care, especially vaccines. Be thoughtful about what you feed your pet and what your pet has access to. Poisoning often leads to a trip to the emergency room. It’s hard to do with regular vets booking up but try not to wait until it’s an emergency. If you think your pet is sick, get care.”
I personally would add an ongoing relationship with your pet groomer (if you have a coated dog) is also important. More than once, my groomer Kandis has drawn my attention to a lump, bump or parasite that I’ve taken care of either personally or with a trip to my vet.
In this time of crisis, be understanding and patient with your animal care team. Understand veterinary staff is also frustrated and very overwhelmed. They are often working long hours, missing lunch breaks and giving their all. Turning away pets is hard to do, especially for very sick or hurt animals. Even a simple appointment takes time. You may think an appointment will only take a few minutes, but it frequently takes much more time when you add proper medical procedures and notes, allowing for continuity and quality of care.
Lastly, be careful with your furry family member. Don’t switch food quickly or allow access to human food. Keep them on a leash and away from unknown situations and/or dogs. Keep up to date on vaccines, learn some basic pet first aid/CPR, clip those toenails regularly, and ensure they are always trained and under control.
As society continues to open up, I expect these pandemic pups will continue to see previously unforeseen challenges (as we all will). Still, with a little care, we can keep our fur kids safe and happy.