Over the past year and a half of pandemic life, people across North America have turned to their pets for comfort, exercise and companionship. Many people spent the first few months of the pandemic welcoming a new furry family member to their bubble.
Veterinary clinics in rural areas have felt the pressure of this pandemic-related pet boom. Issues that were already taking place in the industry have been compounded. Clinics are under-staffed, over-worked and taking on more clients than they can handle.
Andrew Skaien, Director of Administration with Steeples Veterinary Clinic in Cranbrook, says there’s an industry-wide squeeze taking place that is affecting clinics.
“Right now there is extra pressure on primary care facilities. This issue is fairly unique to our area because in places like Calgary, for example, they have big, 24-hour emergency care facilities,” Skaien said. “Those types of facilities just don’t exist here, so the pressure falls on our smaller, primary care clinics.”
He adds that since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been a massive pet boom which means demand for veterinary services goes up.
Approximately 12.6 million U.S. households got a new pet in 2020, according to a COVID-19 pulse study by the American Pet Products Association.
Both Skaien and Dr. Ruth Sawatsky speculated that there could be a number of reasons for the boom in pets.
“It could be that more people are spending time at home, giving them the opportunity to train new puppies or spend time with new kittens,” Skaien said.
“People have also spent more time with the pets that they had before the pandemic, so they may be noticing things that they didn’t before,” Dr. Sawatsky explained.
Jeff Cooper, Practice Manager with Tanglefoot Veterinary Services in Cranbrook, agrees that everyone feels the pressure of being short staffed right now.
Tanglefoot recently hired a new vet, and one of their technicians has agreed to a full-time position once their practicum is over. The clinic has also put out a call to hire another veterinarian.
They have also called in reinforcement; vets from other clinics in the area have offered to help with emergency services as clinics try to stay afloat on the amount of calls coming in.
Cooper says Tanglefoot’s call volumes have increased exponentially, leading them to hire more front-desk staff, too.
“We looked at the schedule and thought how can we help our community? We are so grateful to have the support of these other vets and the support of our community. It’s really amazing,” said Cooper. “But we have to make sure our staff doesn’t get burnt out. We want to be there for the community as well, but we have to find that balance.”
Skaien explained that at Steeples, their front desk receives around 500 calls per day.
“Our calls have gone up exponentially. I recently checked our records and they showed an average of 500 calls within a nine hour day,” he said. “That’s one call per minute, every minute. Within the first 20 minutes of opening — we have 50 calls come through.”
Skaien says that the pandemic is only part of the reason clinics are feeling this pressure. Another factor is a lack of professional veterinary programs.
“The solution is to hire more vets, but there’s such a shortage. Add to that the fact that there are not enough veterinary programs here, so there aren’t enough graduates going into the industry.”
Clinics in Kimberley, Cranbrook and surrounding areas are able to offer medical services to all kinds of animals. Whether it’s your dog, cat, horse, pig, chicken or cow, the vets in this area are constantly responding to emergencies, while also ensuring their regular, non-emergency patients are cared for as well.
Both Tanglefoot and Steeples are currently booking four to six weeks out for non-emergency visits, depending on the severity of the situation.
“We’re currently booking four to six weeks out, depending on the urgency of the case. People need to know that they might have to wait a little longer for an appointment, or wait a little longer in the parking lot for us to come get their pets,” said Cooper. “We’re absolutely doing the best we can, but we also need to set priorities. If your dog has an appointment for a check-up but someone comes in because their dog just got hit by a car — emergencies take priority. It happens; emergencies happen. Not once a month, but daily.”
Dr. Sawatsky says that staff, technicians and veterinarians are doing everything they can.
“We just ask that people are patient, kind and polite,” Sawatsky said.
Skaien felt similarly, “it has been a rough year and a half for everyone in this industry. Our staff are sometimes dealing with frustrated customers and we really need to ask for patience and understanding.”
Cooper felt the same, echoing the now-famous words of Dr. Bonnie Henry to be kind, be calm and be safe.
“All vets are in the same boat right now,” Cooper said. “We’re doing our upmost to make sure everyone’s animals are safe and cared for. So all I ask, is to be kind.”