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COVID Has You Waiting For A Vet Appointment? Here's What To Watch For.

Labrador Retriever
Phil Dolby
Labrador retrievers are the most popular dogs in North Carolina, according to the American Kennel Club. U.S. pet ownership increased by 10% in 2020, creating high demand for veterinary services.

COVID-19 created significant increases in pet ownership last year, resulting in high demand for veterinarians throughout North Carolina. Many veterinary practices have been forced to schedule appointments several weeks in advance, and they have recommendations for pet owners who need to wait.

Don’t sweat the little stuff, but trust your instincts if something seems wrong. Use increased time with pets to recognize potential illnesses. Realize that office veterinary staff are overworked.

Banfield Pet Hospital, one of the largest providers of veterinary medicine in the United States, estimates that pet ownership increased by 10% in 2020, including the first increase in the percentage of kitten and puppy adoptions in 10 years.

“There are several theories. One is perhaps an increase in pet owners. Another theory is that pet owners are home with their pets more so they’re noticing things more, and another theory is that with the stimulus checks and/or with the extra bonuses on the unemployment checks, people have a tad more money to spend,” said Dr. Linda Cassens James, a veterinarian at Morgan County Animal Hospital in Wartburg, Tennessee. Attempts to interview more than 12 veterinarians in Mecklenburg County were unsuccessful, and office managers cited work schedules as the reason.

Increases in pet ownership continued into 2021, accompanied by increases in career opportunities for people in animal care. Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicates that animal care and service workers are among the country’s top 20 fastest-growing occupations.

“It seems like pretty much across the board we are having problems finding people,” James said. “We’ve had problems finding veterinarians even before COVID though, and good staff. And of course, the extra load just accentuates it more.”

Staff burnout at veterinary practices is creating significant turnover, said Alexandra Pate, a veterinary assistant in the Lincoln County community of Denver.

“Many people do not realize how much more stressed out all employees are due to the volume increase,” Pate said. “I personally know of a few clinics that have to cut back on their hours and sometimes services due to understaffing.”

But the wait for appointments should not always cause pet owners to be concerned in non-urgent situations.

“In general, if they’ve been well-vaccinated up to early middle age, going an extra three months beyond their vaccines is probably not going to hurt them,” said James, who listed prevention against heartworm, fleas and ticks as a prominent issue. Banfield data indicates an increase in skin allergies, anxiety and weight gain among pets. (Humans also gained weight during COVID-19 lockdowns. And Harold Herzog, a retired psychology professor at Western Carolina University and an authority on pet-human relationships, writes that evidence is scarce that pets actually relieved human depression during the pandemic.)

Pate advises pet owners to be safe rather than sorry.

“If something feels off, trust your gut,” Pate said. “It’s better to be safe and spend a few hundred dollars for peace of mind than being blindsided by something potentially preventable.”

Another factor contributing to the increase in volume is the time that owners are spending at home with their pets.

“Many are catching on to illnesses that are very subtle because they have the time to see the pet’s health patterns evolving,” Pate said. “But others are coming in for minimal issues just because they are not used to seeing their animals during normal work hours.”

Due to this change and others, veterinary practices are experiencing busier workdays.

“Be prepared for long wait times, especially if you’re at an ER facility. Bring a book, prepare a podcast, and some water or snacks,” Pate said. “If you do have a long wait, be thankful. You never want us having to rush you to the front of the line because that means something very critical is going on.”

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