'Overworked and overstressed': How COVID-19 is affecting veterinarians

'Overworked and overstressed': How COVID-19 is affecting veterinarians
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Visits to veterinarians and animal hospitals have spiked amid the COVID-19 pandemic, triggering a crisis in which care providers are struggling to keep up with the high demand.

Animal hospitals across the country have reported “overworked and overstressed” employees facing a more intense workload.

Some of the same pressures affecting workers in other sectors of the economy are also hitting the veterinary industry, making it harder to retain employees and maintain productivity.

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José Arce, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), said the spread of COVID-19 has “played a huge role” in contributing to the increased stress, adding that new protocols implemented during the pandemic have affected everyday practices in facilities and the mental health of employees.

“Many practices, you know, have had to change the way they work, and that has created a lot of stress and has affected ... the mental health and well-being of our veterinary teams, and many of them are feeling overwhelmed,” Arce said in an interview.

“We’re seeing a wide range of experiences in the hospitals around the country. Some are doing well, others are really challenged with the veterinary teams feeling overworked and overstressed,” he added.

The median number of monthly appointments per practice grew by 4.5 percent from 2019 to 2020 and 6.5 percent during the first six months of this year compared to the same time period in 2020, according to data compiled by Vet Success.

The AVMA’s chief economist and chief veterinary officer, in commentary published last month, said the stress on the industry can in part be attributed to new COVID-19 safety protocols.

Lockdowns enforced at the onset of the pandemic meant most Americans spent greater amounts of time at home, which in turn meant that more attention was being paid to pets — increasing the possibility of recognizing ailments that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

“The value of the pet had already been climbing; the pandemic happens, the value of the pet’s even higher,” Lisa Parshley, co-founder of Olympia Veterinary Specialists in Washington state, told The Hill.

“You’re sitting there at home, you’re not going to work and you see Fluffy — or Spot, or Molly, whatever the dog’s name or cat’s name — has a limp or isn’t eating as well, because now you’re there to notice it,” she added.

The AVMA also noted that many pet owners had more disposable income during the pandemic — from stimulus payments or decreased spending in other areas — which allowed them to spend more on pet care.

A backlog of appointments that accumulated throughout the pandemic may also be contributing to the increase in veterinary visits, according to Arce. Some facilities during the pandemic were only seeing urgent cases to limit the number of visits.

He said animal hospitals are now dealing with the consequences.

“The backlog has gotten better, but I will say we’re still recovering from that backlog that was created by the pandemic,” he said.

Megan Whelan, chief medical officer of the Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, said space is now a major issue at her facility.

“We are out of cages, so we can’t, like, take in a patient that we don’t have a house for,” Whelan told The Hill.

Shawn Messonnier — the managing veterinarian at Paws and Claws Animal Hospital and Holistic Pet Center in Plano, Texas — said appointment wait times are also up. Visits are now booked at least a week in advance, compared to one or two hours ahead of time before the pandemic.

“I do agree that there is a strain right now,” Messonnier said in an interview, adding that colleagues aren’t “getting much downtime.”

Parshley, of Olympia Veterinary Specialists, said burnout among employees was largely driven by two factors: the difficulties that come with treating animals amid COVID-19 and owners taking their “anxiety and anger” out on veterinary workers.

“The families are more intense and anxious because they can’t see what you’re doing because you’re taking them into a black hole, so there’s tension now arriving with the families of these pets. I think that is the root of it,” Parshley said.

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COVID-19 restrictions at veterinary clinics mean pet owners often have to wait outside the building while care is administered inside.

“I don’t think it’s unique to veterinarians, but I do think it has played a tremendous role,” she added.

Burnout is causing some veterinary employees to leave their jobs, further straining an industry that was already beginning to see a shortage in skilled labor before the pandemic. 

“It’s a perfect mix for a perfect storm to start losing members of a profession, and not just going from one practice to another, looking for the perfect practice, but actually leaving because they no longer can do it,” Parshley said. “Compassion burnout, compassion fatigue, and they just can’t do it.” 

Parshley also cited the high rate of suicide among employees in the veterinary industry. According to a 2020 study from the AVMA and Merck Animal Health, veterinarians are 2.7 times more likely to attempt suicide than non-veterinarians. 

Messonnier said he has been having a difficult time hiring more workers at his practice. 

“It’s extremely difficult to find people to hire. I would love to hire another couple people and we could see more patients, but we can’t find anybody,” Messonnier said.

Whelan predicted that difficulties in the veterinary industry will be sustained for five to six years. Part of the reason, she said, is that new graduates are “greener” because they did not have as much hands-on experience amid the pandemic.