Can’t take your pet to see a vet? Here’s why animal clinics are so crowded all of a sudden

Jackie Logie knew something was wrong when her 14-year-old Labrador Retriever, Flinstone, suddenly stopped walking last month.

He already had an annual vet appointment booked for the following week, one that took him almost a month to land, but when he tried to move forward, he was unsuccessful. The clinic suggested that she call other locations, but warned her that she would face similar challenges.

Before COVID-19, you had never faced a wait, even for small issues. But long waits for routine and emergency treatment have become standard as veterinarians battle increasing numbers of pets and staffing shortages. Both have been exacerbated by the pandemic. People are adopting pets more than ever. And the staff shortage, a growing problem for years, is now so dire that retired veterinarians are even being called back to duty.

Dr. Kristen Brown of Rossland Animal Hospital, where Logie first tried to book an appointment for Flinstone, told the Star that this is the new norm for veterinary clinics in Ontario.

“Our hospital receives more patients per month and more new patients than ever,” explained the Oshawa vet.

On top of that, Brown notes that there are improved public health protocols in place to keep everyone safe, including additional sanitation and disinfection.

“Most of us have been practicing medicine on the sidewalk, which means that patients are the only ones entering the building, ”Brown said. “Each appointment takes much longer because we are doing it in a really safe way.”

In addition, he said, the pandemic has taken a large number of clinic staff out of the workplace.

“We are a profession dominated by women, and with COVID going on, many moms need to be at home taking care of their children, parents or grandparents. A lot of people had to leave the industry or at least go part-time to try to deal with their children and their families. “

The Ontario Veterinary Medical Association has even asked retired veterinarians to return to work to help understaffed clinics.

“The veterinary profession is experiencing an extraordinary challenge with increased demand and reduced access to care,” John Stevens, CEO of OVMA, told The Star.

Flinstone, a 14-year-old lab, suddenly stopped walking last month.  His owner, Jackie Logie, had to wait hours before a veterinarian at an emergency animal clinic in Toronto could see him.  There are more pets than ever, a vet told the Star. And there aren't enough people to treat them.

Like health care workers for humans, veterinarians have been considered essential in all the pandemic. And similarly, the OVMA said, the profession is also experiencing high rates of burnout, stress and other mental health problems. Brown said animal doctors and doctors are often subject to the same kind of anger from the public as doctors and nurses who care for humans.

Brown said more needs to be done sooner for the field to keep up with demand. whether that means admitting more veterinary students to college and university programs or preventing the loss of current employees due to things like burnout and stress.

For Logie, when he couldn’t get an appointment at an animal clinic, he headed to an emergency hospital. They added her to a waiting list, but told her it could be more than 10 hours before they called her.

Eight hours passed before Logie finally got a call from Toronto Veterinary Emergency Hospital in Scarborough to call Flinstone for her emergency. He sat in his car in a parking lot outside the hospital at 1 am waiting to be seen. And even though it was midnight, Logie said other pet owners could be seen in their cars doing the same.

Logie said the hospital had animal classification posters posted on the walls. “They give you a list of who will be served first, depending on what is happening to them, and who will have second and third priority. I’ve been there (many) times before the pandemic, and it just wasn’t. “

“There is a shortage of registered vets and vet techs within the industry,” said Phil Nichols, director of operations for the Humane Society of Toronto.

Nichols suggested a fee increase as a solution to the staffing challenges clinics are experiencing. However, he acknowledges that higher fees make care less accessible.

“The only way that the industry can compensate is by increasing its prices so that the personnel who work in the industry can afford to work and have a lifestyle that is relevant and respectful to their investment.”

Dr. Stephen Manning, associate dean of clinical programs at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, said that to some extent, the staffing problem is systemic and predates the pandemic across the country.

A 2020 survey from the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association warned that even before COVID-19 the “demand for veterinary services currently exceeds or will soon exceed capacity at the national level.”

The University of Saskatchewan Veterinary Medical Center is the only 24-hour small animal emergency hospital in the Saskatoon area. “There are more positions available in Canada in veterinary practices than there are veterinarians available. It’s been like that for several years, ”Manning said.

According to Greg Keefe, dean of the Atlantic Veterinary College at Prince Edward Island University, the shortage of veterinarians in PEI is chronic and widespread. Keefe said some key solutions would be to increase the number of students receiving training and enlist the support of others in the veterinary industry.

“There are veterinary technicians or registered technologists, who would be essentially equivalent to nurses in the human health system. And I think we need to look at their role as a team member in the veterinary service and make sure that, as a profession, we are using them to their fullest potential, ”Keefe said.

As for Flinstone, Logie said she he never found out exactly what was wrong with him. He had had a chronic neurological problem his entire life and appeared to be battling vestibular disease, a kind of canine vertigo common in older dogs.

The hospital said the only way to eradicate the problem was an MRI for dogs, but Logie chose not to undergo the procedure. The hospital prescribed painkillers, which Logie said made him “go back to his usual self by acting like a puppy when he is 14 years old.”

With files from Ashleigh-Rae Thomas


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