“Immediately when the pandemic started, everybody had the same questions. Am I allowed to leave my house? Am I allowed to go to work? The first struggle for veterinarians and veterinary clinics was being listed as essential services so we could continue to work.”
Jessica Vogelsang, DVM, Chief Medical Officer at American Animal Hospital Association
Much like any other industry, the veterinary industry underwent significant changes during the Covid-19 pandemic. Recent research found that everything from clinic protocols, patient admissions and discharges, deliveries, shipments, appointment scheduling and duration, and the availability of food, pharmaceuticals, and medical equipment were profoundly impacted. Clinics had to adapt and implement new practices to ensure the safety of their staff, clients, and patients.
“Immediately when the pandemic started, everybody had the same questions. Am I allowed to leave my house? Am I allowed to go to work? The first struggle for veterinarians and veterinary clinics was being listed as essential services so we could continue to work,” shares Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, Chief Medical Officer at American Animal Hospital Association. “Once we were classified as essential, people started trying to get in to see us. The next struggle for us was how do we manage appointments. Obviously, we had to wear masks, but we weren’t sure at the beginning whether Covid could be transmitted between pets and people. So it was a really scary time for everyone.”
The veterinary industry got creative and found ways to continue to see pets. Most clinics implemented curbside care; some even found ways to make telehealth work. It was a very challenging time as there were mandated limits to how many staff could be in a space simultaneously, and staffing shortages increased due to illness and burnout.
Tensions ran high for everyone everywhere, and the number of frustrated pet owners taking it out on veterinary staff increased: “Initially, everybody was just trying to work with the new system. People started to get a little more frustrated or impatient, but most pet owners were really lovely and understood the challenges,” remembers Dr. Vogelsang
“There is a lot of trauma that comes from being in this profession. We all know what signing up for when we start. But I think if people outside the profession could come in with a little more compassion for what that means, it would help us all out,” says Dr. Vogelsang. “I understand that your pet is itching, it’s driving you crazy, and you’re upset that your appointment is late. But maybe I’m late because I just had to euthanize a puppy that got hit by a car. We can do a better job of supporting the staff caring for your pets.”
Meet the Expert: Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
Dr. Jessica Vogelsang is a highly accomplished veterinarian, writer, and speaker in San Diego, California. Currently, she is the Chief Medical Officer at American Animal Hospital Association. She graduated with honors from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and has become one of the few certified veterinary journalists in the world.
Dr. Vogelsang is a regular contributor to leading online outlets, including PetMD, Vetstreet, DVM360, and Petfinder. She is the director of the Birdsong program, a pioneering initiative that provides critical end-of-life care for pets. She also practices with Paws into Grace, an innovative home hospice service for pets. Her first book, All Dogs Go to Kevin, was published by Grand Central in July 2015, and it has been widely praised for its touching and insightful portrayal of the human-animal bond.
One significant change that occurred very quickly was how veterinary clinics conducted appointments. State and federal Covid-19 guidelines required that clinics shift how they see patients. “We started doing curbside care,” says Dr. Vogelsang. Pet owners were asked to wait in their cars while their pets were taken inside for examination.
While this minimized contact between people and reduced the risk of exposure to the virus, it presented some challenges. “It took a lot longer to see patients. We had to call clients from the exam rooms. Often there were connection issues, so we had to go outside and talk to them. We started to see delays that we’d never experienced. And not only were appointments taking a lot longer, but patients were having difficulty getting in. That was very new,” shares Dr. Vogelsang
Curbside effectively maintained social distancing and protected veterinary staff and pet owners, but it was never intended to be a permanent solution. Thankfully, as the pandemic has waned and Covid-19 cases have dropped, veterinary clinics have been able to resume in-person pet care.
Another change during and since the pandemic has been an elevated demand for veterinary care services: “There was a huge push and more demand during the pandemic. It has calmed down a little bit, but there’s still elevated demand,” shares Dr. Vogelsang. “There was a lot of attrition, especially with their veterinary technicians, but also with DVMs, so we’re continuing to see some persistent short staffing. It’s not as acute as it was during the height of the pandemic. However, it does seem like it’s still more difficult to access care right now.”
There have been extensive debates as to whether or not there has been an increase in pet ownership during the pandemic. “It’s a matter of debate,” says Dr. Vogelsang. “When you speak to some people in the shelter community, they’ll say it wasn’t really that there was a huge surge. It was that people weren’t in the shelters relinquishing pets. So it seemed like there was a shortage there.”
Research varies on how many new pets people acquired but can be as low as 14 percent and as high as 78 percent. Overall, Americans are spending more on their pets, with Forbes reporting that two-thirds of pet owners have spent more on their pets in the last six months to help them transition to being home alone as owners spend more time out of the house.
So while increased demand may have been due to additional pets, other factors were at play. “Much of the increased demand was because people were at home with their dogs all the time and started seeing all things they never had before. Also, people were catching up on preventive care. So there was more demand for currently existing pets,” explains Dr. Vogelsang
During the pandemic, technology use in human healthcare increased. This was the same for veterinary care. Many clinics began using video chat for curbside care and eventually for telehealth visits. Researchers have found that veterinary telehealth can provide access to pet owners who otherwise have transportation or cost barriers that prevent them from accessing help. “We are seeing more pet owners asking if we will start using telemedicine. They are used to using it for themselves and their kids, so they want to use it for their pets. Particularly since it is hard to get in to be seen right now,” says Dr. Vogelsang. “People got much more comfortable communicating using technology, making things much more efficient.”
Texting between clinics and pet owners has also become more common, as has the ability to send a practitioner videos of the issues a pet is experiencing to aid with a diagnosis. “There is an increased demand for access to care and advice, whether it’s doctors or technicians. Owners want support from their veterinary team at home, not just in the clinic,” explains Dr. Vogelsang. “Providing this kind of virtual care is something that we think can help veterinary staff that are burned out and don’t want to work in the clinic anymore. It can give them some more flexibility and fill a clear need.”
Veterinary clinic professionals have always experienced a high level of stress and burnout. Unfortunately, this was exacerbated by the pandemic. “I think the pandemic revealed a lot of cracks in the veterinary profession. This field has always been populated with people that lead with their hearts, so they are willing to put up with a lot of stuff because they believe in what they do,” says Dr. Vogelsang. “But, a lot of people hit a breaking point during the pandemic and said, it’s just not worth it for me anymore. These are not new problems, but I think people’s tolerance for it and willingness to stick with the profession has come down a bit.”
She continues. “We did some surveys at AHA asking people you know, why are you in the profession? Why are you leaving? What are the challenges with pet owners? We saw some parallels with what you were seeing in human healthcare. There’s some erosion in that trust between healthcare providers and their patients. Some of that has to do with social media influence and the different ways we get information and find people that we trust. ”
As staff leave due to this burnout, it is harder for the staff who have stayed: “The hard part is when everybody leaves, and you’re the one who’s still showing up, is that sometimes people get mad at you because the wait was so long. Don’t take it out on the people that are still here. Everybody is so tense right now, and people’s patience and willingness to give grace is a little short right now,” says Dr. Vogelsang.
Dr. Vogelsang is hopeful that there will be more positive changes in the veterinary profession. “We can do a better job mentoring the newer members of our profession. That goes for technicians as well as veterinarians,” she urges. “We need to train people to handle poorly behaved clients and teach bosses to have your back, right? We need to support people in these challenging situations.
Another area where there is room for growth is in pay and job duties: “We have so many talented technicians that are not being utilized to their full extent. Technicians also need adequate compensation. A lot of times, we hear, ‘I could work at Costco and make more money and be yelled at a lot less.’ We need to try to solve these problems across the board the profession,” she says.