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Pandemic pressures are having lasting effects on the pet care system, including a shortage of local veterinary professionals 

Costly care

Atascadero couple Mark and Noreen Jewell knew they had to act fast when their beloved cat Ashley was dying of cancer in August. But with San Luis Obispo County's pet hospitals full to capacity, they were given two difficult choices: wait a month for Ashley to get emergency crossover service, or pay the pandemic-inflated cost of a walk-in appointment.

click to enlarge WORTH IT Mark and Noreen Jewell found themselves with lighter wallets after navigating SLO County’s post-pandemic pet care system for their cats Ashley (gray) and Mr. P. - PHOTO COURTESY OF NOREEN JEWELL
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF NOREEN JEWELL
  • WORTH IT Mark and Noreen Jewell found themselves with lighter wallets after navigating SLO County’s post-pandemic pet care system for their cats Ashley (gray) and Mr. P.

"If you have kitty disease, six weeks is an eternity," Mark said.

So, they shelled out $169 after a hurried nighttime hospital visit, and Ashley was cremated.

The Jewells aren't alone in their struggle to find timely and wallet-friendly pet care services. Lockdowns from COVID-19 in 2020 impacted overbooked animal hospitals and veterinary services more than ever, and though the need for pet care continues rising, there's also a shortage of veterinary staff across the state.

Amid ongoing impacts, veterinarians are sympathetic to the plights of pets and their owners.

"In more emergency settings, we're going to get clients who are on edge. They haven't processed it, and are asked for money, too. It's a lot to put on people," said Aaron Schechter, the Jewells' vet at Atascadero Pet Hospital & Emergency Center. "The shorter fuse is there, too. That depends on how the world is right now."

Schechter and his staff are part of a large group of animal care service providers who remain mentally and emotionally drained by the seemingly endless cases coming through their doors. Medical staff can't seem to pin down an exact reason for the new influx of pet patients, either. But they have some clues.

"There was definitely a feeling that adoptions were going up and going like crazy across the nation when COVID first started," said Bonnie Markoff, the founder/vet of SLO's Animal Care Clinic.

But after discussing with other veterinary organizations, Markoff discovered that the initial adoption spike soon decreased. She said that overall adoptions during the entire lockdown period did not rise.

"I think there were at first, when people were confined to home and we did see that happen at Woods [Humane Society] ... I think they almost ran out of dogs at one point," she said.

Markoff also speculated that spending more time at home with their pets made people sit up and take better notice of their animals' needs.

"They're home, they're bonding, they want better care, they want higher quality care, they're asking for more services per visit, and each visit is requiring more work on the part of our staff members," Markoff said. "In addition, we were seeing patients outdoors. It's just harder for us to keep up when we can't interact with people and pets the way we usually do."

Schechter agreed that customer care took a hit. Both doctors said that indoor services had to be replaced with outdoor "car-side" care. It resulted in rushed interactions with clients who would end up in bad moods.

"People need to feel like you care about them and their problems. That's hard to do over the phone," Schechter said.

Another critical reason for delayed pet care is a shortage of veterinarians, which isn't limited to SLO County. Schechter said this is a statewide problem.

Markoff noted that almost every animal hospital in the county is trying to hire more medical staff. Dwindling staff numbers compelled hospitals to turn many clients away.

"We've never turned people away [before], but for the sake of the mental health of our staff, we've had to do that. Specialty clinics and emergency clinics are overwhelmed also. There's been no change in the number of veterinarians or veterinary hospitals available," Markoff said.

Tense meetings with clients and escalating cases caused burnout among local veterinary staff. Team leaders like Schechter offered incentives, including higher pay, to encourage staff to stay on, which in turn caused service prices to rise too. Schechter said that the staff's mental health caused his hospital to reduce daily appointments by half, and that he recently hired three people to replace those who quit because of burnout. They still cater to emergency cases on the weekends.

Animal hospitals are suffering from a supply shortage too.

"Basic antibiotics, surgical gloves, simple things that you expect to have were scarce," Schechter said.

The Jewells faced this issue firsthand. When their other cat, Mr. P, was diagnosed with diabetes, his vet said that Noreen's diabetes medication would also work for him. The only difference was that Mr. P needed needles that are thicker than Noreen's. Fortunately for him, Noreen's diabetes specialist had the right kind available, and they could pick them up the next day. The Jewells said that getting the needles from a pet specialist would have taken much longer.

Others like Meg S., who declined to give her full name, and her dog Teddy Bear were less lucky. Jam-packed hospitals in SLO County forced Meg to travel to Monterey for her German shepherd to get eye surgery.

"The specialist in Arroyo Grande was booked out for over a month just for a consultation, and his local vet here who did his second surgery refused to do a third surgery and referred me to a Santa Barbara oncologist. When I called, they told me they weren't taking new clients if they lived outside of Santa Barbara County," she said.

Meg said she made calls "around all over California" to find a specialist before Monterey's Ophthalmology for Animals could fit her in. But getting there wasn't easy.

"By the time he was seen, though, the tumors had pretty much squished his right eye. The vet had wanted a CT scan before surgery but the wait time and cost for those was even longer and more expensive, so it never got done. It was a long recovery; my dog almost died, and while the surgery probably only bought him a few more months, but he is now still alive and even thriving thanks to them," Meg said.

Pet owners like Meg and the Jewells said they feel for overworked vets.

"They take their jobs seriously, they love their animals," Noreen said.

More than a year and a half into the pandemic, doctors expressed hope that cases will level out soon and feelings of burnout would subside. Both Schechter and Markoff thought the root of the problem is how people treat each other, and asked for empathy from both sides.

"Everybody in this profession cares," Schechter said. "We just wouldn't be doing it otherwise." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at brajagopal@newtimesslo.com.

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