In the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed to Scott Neabore that the pet population had doubled as people bound to their homes sought out cats and dogs for comfort and companionship. His practice in Haddonfield, meanwhile, was still compact — just him and three vet technicians.
His schedule is fully booked with surgeries until autumn. There are no slots for more dental procedures until the beginning of next year. He has performed more spay and neuter surgeries in the last year than he ever did previously.
“The pet population essentially doubled in a year, but the veterinarian population did not,” he said. “Now we’re trying to play catch-up.”
As pet ownership sharply grew in the last year — 11.38 million households in the United States got pets during the pandemic, according to the American Pet Products Association — so did the workload for veterinary practices, many of which simultaneously grappled with COVID-19 safety protocol, concerns of thinning staff, and growing pressure to see as many patients as possible.
Even with nimble vet staff, there was sometimes a waiting period of six to seven hours at the Red Bank Veterinary Hospital emergency room in Hillsborough, N.J. — a delay exacerbated by some owners who brought in their pets for nonurgent matters, veterinarian Agatha Kuza said.
“My job has kind of become a general practice-emergency hybrid,” she said, noting that some people have paid the more expensive emergency hospital fee rather than wait longer to get their animal seen elsewhere.
In a typical 12-hour shift during the pandemic, Kuza saw 10 to 15 patients. On her busiest day, she recalled, she saw 30. Another day, when two other emergency clinics in the area diverted owners to nearby facilities, eight patients showed up at Red Bank Veterinary Hospital within an hour.
The work has become overwhelming, Kuza said. After already long days sometimes peppered with combative or accusatory pet owners, some employees stay an extra hour or two to finish their tasks, she said. Half of the nurses who were working at the hospital when Kuza was hired last year have resigned, and replacements are hard to find.
“I definitely already feel burned out,” said Kuza, who graduated in 2019 from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “I don’t see myself doing emergency — or even veterinary medicine — long term.” She has begun to see a therapist, she said, and take medication.
When COVID-19 and vet medicine collided, it brewed “a perfect storm,” said Jennifer Keeler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association.
“We started out with not being sure if vet clinics could remain open, and in the early days, they were only open for the emergency procedures,” she said. That pushed back routine wellness visits — and the backlog compounded as people began adopting or buying new pets and bringing them in for their first checkups.
“Once they were allowed to do routine care and trying to dig out of that backlog, a lot of staff members are parents whose kids are home,” she said, noting that the majority of veterinarians and veterinary technicians in the United States are women. “So a lot of vet clinics lost staff and have been unable to fill positions. It’s really put a lot of pressure on them.”
Coupled with new rules surrounding COVID-19, such as appointments that required owners to stay outside while their pet was being seen, more owners became frustrated and angry, Keeler said.
“That can be emotional for pet owners because they want to be in with their pet,” she said. “They often give a lot of push-back to vets and staff, so it’s kind of coming at vet professionals from all angles lately.”
Turnover is then high, she said, particularly when there is low pay, little job satisfaction, burnout, and compassion fatigue. Vet technicians and technologists earned an annual median pay of $36,260 in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The agency found that the veterinarians averaged $108,350 a year as of last May.
“I get cursed at at least once a week,” said an emergency veterinarian in Philadelphia who requested anonymity for fear of jeopardizing her job. People also have threatened and yelled at her, she said, slammed doors in her face, and walked out on $2,000 bills. “It’s definitely gotten much worse.”
The workload, too, has been fierce: In the first week of the pandemic, she said, a few cat owners who began to spend more time at home observed their pets more closely and brought them in to be examined. She diagnosed three with having abdominal tumors. And she examined more puppies than usual, many of which came from Lancaster County, Missouri, or Ohio, hot spots for puppy mills.
“Everyone just wants a puppy so much right now that puppies that wouldn’t get adopted with heart murmurs or hernias are getting adopted,” she said.
Recently, she noticed an uptick in animals that had ingested marijuana.
She said she had used her own money to pay for the treatment of six animals surrendered to her practice during the COVID-19 outbreak. One was a puppy with a broken leg; another, a cat with a severed tail.
“There’s no end in sight,” she said, and recalled a shift when she had to handle 15 emergencies by herself. “And we’re just working harder and harder and harder.”
Despite increased stress, “in general, I’m doing better than most people,” she said. “... You have to not take things personally. You have to come up with ways to cope, or you can’t deal with it.”
As it stands, the industry feels broken, said Braelyn Bankoff, a graduate of Penn Vet. She left her job as a small-animal vet in April 2020 after the job left her anxious and unhappy.
“The vet world right now feels set up to go poorly from the start,” she said, and pointed to the high cost of vet school that led to people “feeling trapped” or “forced to work unsustainably,” and the expense of running a tight-margin animal hospital that invited the pressure of seeing as many patients a day as possible. The stress, so crippling at times, has given rise to Not One More Vet, a national nonprofit dedicated to bettering the mental health of vet staff.
“It puts more burden on the existing staff and results in crazy hours, unsustainable workloads, too many client expectations you just can’t support,” Bankoff said.
She ultimately found that the pressure was unhealthy.
“I started developing stress-related illness,” she said. “I saw a psychiatrist and had to get on antidepressants and anxiety medication.” She quit her job without another one lined up and started a job search. She landed her current position, an analyst for the National Board of Medical Examiners, in January.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” she said. “I have hobbies now. I have a life. I am no longer on any meds. I feel very much myself again, and that’s awesome.”