SF Chonicle-As animal hospitals struggle with vet shortages, pet owners worry about access to care

As animal hospitals struggle with vet shortages, pet owners worry about access to care

Photo of Andres Picon

On a recent August day, Leti Luna noticed that her cat Henry wasn’t his usual self. The 11-year-old feline had suffered from hyperthyroidism for some time, and his medications had done a decent job of maintaining his quality of life. But suddenly, it was clear that Henry’s health was tanking.

Luna rushed Henry to his usual veterinarian less than two blocks away from home, but the vet was overwhelmed with other patients and couldn’t see Henry. Desperate for help, Luna, president of Günter’s Legacy Animal Shelter in Vallejo, drove to an emergency pet clinic in Cordelia, where she was told it would be a three-hour wait.

By the time Henry was let into the clinic, it was too late.

“They told me the best decision was to let him go,” Luna said. “It was frustrating to say the least.”

The frantic search for emergency veterinary care has in recent months become a familiar process for Luna and other animal shelter administrators across the Bay Area and throughout the country.

“It’s been one adventure after another trying to get these dogs into emergency centers when they have emergencies, and we’re not the only ones,” she said.

Pet owners across the region say they are frustrated and concerned about a worsening shortage of available pet care providers, especially in time-sensitive emergencies. Many have taken to social media to chronicle their distressing experiences trying to find care for their beloved companions, describing long trips to distant cities and nightmare wait times, sometimes upward of six hours.

For many, the anxiety was fueled in early September by San Francisco SPCA’s announcement that it would shut down or reduce emergency care hours at its two locations in the city, citing staff shortages. Effective Sept. 13, emergency services would be discontinued at the Pacific Heights hospital, which previously offered 24/7 emergency care. The Mission hospital would shorten emergency hours to 8 a.m. to noon every day, from its previous 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule.

Those kinds of changes — and the ensuing challenges that pet owners and shelter administrators are facing — are the result of a mix of circumstances, including COVID-19, that in the past couple of years have wreaked havoc on an already stressed and short-handed veterinary industry, according to area vets.

“We wanted to keep both of those services open but we were just inundated,” said Jennifer Scarlett, president of SFSPCA. “The team is just chronically stretched to the point where a lot of staff were having a huge amount of stress, and between that and the nursing and veterinary shortage … we just couldn’t staff it any longer.”

Normally, SFSPCA might expect to have about 120 certified veterinary nurses on staff. These days, its two hospitals are operating about 20 to 30 nurses short. SAGE San Francisco — which was Animal Internal Medicine & Specialty Services, or AIMSS, until recently — is supposed to offer emergency services 24/7, but about 30% of the time, it cannot receive new patients overnight because of staffing shortages as it transitions from AIMSS to SAGE, said Beth Kollar, regional director at SAGE Veterinary Centers on the West Coast.

Many animal hospitals have stopped accepting new patients as they make their way through a backlog of appointments with fewer employees. Even for existing patients, the wait for a standard wellness appointment can be weeks, and for a specialist, up to a couple of months.

Both SFSPCA and SAGE, like many others, are relying on “relief veterinarians” from other locations to help fill shifts, but it’s not a sustainable model, Kollar said.

“It is a lack of providers and there’s no lever to pull on that, unfortunately,” she said. “I wish there was a way to suddenly increase the number of vets in the area, but there’s not.”

Vets are often having to triage during emergency care hours, giving preference to pets in more severe condition. Some animal hospitals will admit pets in life-threatening condition regardless of emergency hours or staffing levels.

Meanwhile, demand for veterinary services has soared, creating a “perfect storm,” Kollar said.

While pet adoptions across the country do not appear to have risen during the pandemic, overall pet ownership and the number of vet appointments booked have, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Working from home has allowed many pet owners to notice health issues in their animals that they may not have spotted otherwise, and they have scheduled 6.5% more appointments so far in 2021 than at this point last year, according to the AVMA.

Despite the increased demand, veterinarians say the shortage of care providers is really a symptom of underlying problems within the veterinary industry, and the still-raging pandemic has only exacerbated them.

COVID-19 has generated a host of challenges that have generally made vets less efficient, compounding the existing staff shortages. Curbside-pickup policies and an array of workflow changes forced by the pandemic mean that appointments take longer on average. Quarantining and contact tracing, paired with a newfound hypersensitivity to illness, have sometimes resulted in groups of vets and nurses having to take days off at a time. Previously, it was common for them to go to work when they were sick, Kollar said.

Some vets and nurses have taken breaks in their careers, needing to stay home as their children learned remotely. For those who have stayed in the field, burnout from a backlog of appointments and making up for absent staff has made work physically and emotionally draining.

“Everyone is just working their tails off trying to take care of all these animals,” Kollar said.

But even before the coronavirus arrived, many veterinarians were already struggling. According to a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, vets and veterinary nurses suffer from relatively high rates of depression, anxiety and compassion fatigue. Female veterinarians were 3.5 times as likely, and male veterinarians 2.1 times as likely, to die from suicide as the general population.

Much of that stress, Kollar said, comes from the unique nature of the job and the people who choose to do it. Veterinarians care deeply about animals, and it can be especially difficult for them when they cannot treat a pet or when the owner is unable or unwilling to pay for treatment. They sometimes face harassment from pet owners frustrated about the price of treatment, and unlike doctors for humans, sometimes have to euthanize their patients.

“There’s the stress of working long hours and then there’s the stress of working long hours and not being able to serve people,” Scarlett said.

Turnover among vets in the United States stands at about 16% — twice that of physicians in medical practice. Turnover among veterinary nurses is at about 26%, according to the AVMA.

“Veterinary medicine is tough,” said Virginia Donohue, executive director of San Francisco Animal Care and Control, which used to rely on SFSPCA’s emergency clinics for the animals in its shelter and is now struggling to find replacements.

“It’s a tough, tough field to be in, but they’re essential,” Donohue said. “We really, really need them.”

A 2020 study out of Banfield Pet Hospital, a national veterinary practice chain, predicted that a “critical shortage” of veterinarians could cause an estimated 75 million pets in the U.S. to lose access to veterinary care by 2030.

“We have to do something about the way we work,” Scarlett said. “The level of mental illness, attrition and suicide in our profession cannot go on, so we have to think about: How do we create the future of work so that we stay in this field?”

One possible solution could be veterinary telemedicine, Scarlett said. In California, per rules set by the state’s Veterinary Medical Board, vets can use telemedicine only to see an animal they have already seen in person within the past 12 months, and only for the condition for which that animal was originally seen.

But advocates, including Scarlett, argue that expanding it to serve more pets could benefit the animals, their owners and vets themselves by creating more opportunities for relatively quick appointments.

To help make up for its reduced emergency hours, SFSPCA partnered with a third-party vendor called Vet Triage, a “video tele-triage service” that connects pet owners to Vet Triage veterinarians. For a $50 fee, the vet can help the owner determine whether there is an emergency, or provide guidance for possible at-home care.

Until the vet shortage ends — “This is not going to go away in a heartbeat,” Scarlett warned — pet owners can take steps to reduce the chances of emergencies and be prepared in case there is one.

Be proactive, Kollar urged. Schedule wellness appointments weeks ahead of time and make a list of emergency care centers near your home. Keep your animals safe by hiding the kinds of things that most often land pets in the emergency room: chocolate, grapes and THC products, to name a few.

If you do have to take your pet to an emergency clinic, be ready for an hours-long wait. Bring a phone charger, food and something to keep you busy.

“It’s been a tough year and a half for everybody, and everyone here has been scrambling to keep up with everything,” Kollar said. “Know that everyone is doing the best they can.”

Andy Picon is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @andpicon