The 'pet boom' in Los Angeles is wreaking havoc on the already-struggling pet-care business.
Many pet hospitals and vets are struggling to catch up after the pandemic. (Photo by Alexandra Applegate)
Veterinarian technicians, masked and wearing PPE, rush in and out of pet hospitals around Los Angeles County, carrying pets on both arms from their owners' cars to the hospital. Long queues form outside with humans and their restless pets' colorful leashes dotting the sidewalk, despite the fact that they work as quickly as they can. The phone never stops ringing at the hospital, and the vets' caseloads continue to grow.
Despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has been underway for nearly two years, if your dog begins to limp severely or your cat begins to have shallow breathing, you may have to phone more than a dozen pet hospitals to locate one willing to see you.
Many pet shelters rejoiced empty cages when the epidemic shut down the world in 2020 because all of their animals had found homes with lonely Los Angelenos who craved companionship while cooped up in their houses. According to a research by the American Pet Products Association, 12.6 million U.S. households adopted a new pet after March 2020, resulting in a "pet boom."
As a result, many people concluded that when pet hospital waiting lines grew longer and some veterinarians refused to accept new patients in 2021, it was because doctors were treating more pets. Without the option of a walk-in appointment, pet hospitals across LA County reported wait periods of more than eight hours, multiple days, or even weeks. Because of their backlog of waiting clients, many hospitals are still refusing to accept new patients unless they are in critical condition.
The pet care business, on the other hand, feels the "boom" may not have been as explosive as first reports claimed. According to the veterinary journal DVM360, the overall number of pets adopted from shelters in 2020 will be the lowest in the last five years. Because of the epidemic, animal control brought in fewer animals, owners relinquished their pets, and shelters got fewer pets from other countries, resulting in fewer animals being adopted.
Despite these poor adoption rates, there appears to be an endless stream of furry patients coming in and out of pet hospitals, and the line outside never gets shorter.
The income for pet care practices increased, but the actual number of transactions did not, according to Peter Weinstein, former executive director of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association (SCVMA). This, according to Weinstein, revealed that while many hospitals were seeing the same number of pets, customers were bringing their pets in more frequently. COVID-related constraints also led veterinarians to provide ineffective care to their patients in order to comply with social distancing rules.
Veterinarians were required to perform "curbside pick-up" and meet clients outside in their cars, or only let one customer indoors at a time, due to county social distance requirements. To keep workers healthy, several hospitals divided their staff into work sections or segregated their work schedules, which slowed down typical processes.
The few employees on shift would have to take up the slack with fewer employees manning the offices. Strict lockdown restrictions have led many veterinarians to abandon their traditional in-person engagement with staff and clients, requiring them to reconsider the best approach to communicate with people using online chats, emails, phone calls, and automated messages.
Fewer vet techs spent more time on many phone calls with the same customer, rushing back and forth between cars and the facility, all while staying six feet apart.
There have been so many various rules and regulations changes that it has made it more difficult for us to be as efficient as we used to be, Melissa Tompkins, veterinary practice consultant at South Coast Veterinary Management Solutions, said. We slowed down whenever things changed.
During the early stages of the pandemic, people were also forced to reschedule preventative and routine check-up visits because veterinarians were considered critical enterprises and only saw emergency cases. When pets were finally treated, Weinstein said, they were generally sicker or in need of more intensive care, which slowed the process even more.
As a result of all of this, the industry has become less efficient. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), veterinarians saw fewer patients per hour in 2020, and average productivity fell by nearly a quarter. If a practitioner treats 100 patients each week in 2019, they'll only be able to see 75 in 2020, putting them at least 25 pets behind schedule.
Since they were working from home, Tompkins added, more individuals were becoming hyper-vigilant about their pets' health.
People saw their dog itching all the time or detected a lump they might not have noticed otherwise, according to Tompkins. When you're at home more, you're more likely to notice if something is wrong with your dog.
As a result of all of these variables compounding for more than a year, cases quickly became backlogged, resulting in long waits and refusals to treat new patients.
It's been difficult to catch up even as things started opening up, said SCVMA executive director Jennifer Hawkins.
However, according to Weinstein, the pet-care sector was already plagued by inefficiencies, which the pandemic uncovered in a "imperfect storm.
Even before the pandemic, Tompkins said the pet-care sector was having trouble finding and keeping workers. The pandemic worsened the unfilled holes in an already understaffed industry.
To compensate for the needed service, our present team is working a lot of overtime or extra hours, Hawkins added.
According to the AVMA, there were 18 available vacancies for every one veterinarian looking for work between January 2019 and May 2021. There were also six unfilled vacancies for every technician and vet assistant, as well as 12 available positions for other pet-care-related jobs.
On a worldwide basis, we just weren't prepared for the case management that we've had to deal with, said Weinstein.
While veterinary school applications are up 19 percent for the 2021-22 academic year, it is a four-year curriculum, and students will need time to start working with animals at full capacity.
When someone says to me, "Well, why don't we simply make more veterinarians?" I think to myself, "Well, why don't we just produce more veterinarians." Weinstein stated. What am I supposed to do, I have to say? How about cracking more eggs, putting them in a pan, and making some more vets?
Furthermore, the pet health care industry's workforce is becoming increasingly female. Ten of the country's best veterinary schools accepted more than 1,500 women into their programs for the 2021-2022 school year, but just 313 men. According to the Center for American Progress, women are more likely to have lower job life spans even in 2021 because they are more involved in raising children or supporting their families. When they have children, some women choose for part-time jobs, jobs that require less time commitment, or abandon their jobs entirely.
It's not that women doctors aren't capable — they are — but follow-up studies show that female veterinarians have shorter career lifespans, according to Alan Schulman, a veterinary surgeon at the Animal Medical Center of Southern California.
Schulman also feels that younger veterinarians are less inclined to prioritize their careers over other aspects of their life, making them less ready to work longer hours, take on more duties, or even take over practices from retiring veterinarians.
Many consumers are forced to wait in their cars or outside because to pandemic-related restrictions and overburdened pet hospitals.
Unfortunately, veterinary medicine has a reputation for burnout and turnover. When compared to other health-care professions, the field has traditionally had a high turnover rate. Veterinarians leave the industry about twice as frequently as physicians in the medical area, and vet techs have one of the greatest turnover rates of any health-care profession.
In the world of pet health care, compassion fatigue, or the physical, emotional, and psychological effects of caring for others, has long existed. One significant distinction between human and pet health care is that veterinarians can euthanize animals if required, a responsibility that can be taxing on pet care professionals.
For a long time, our field has suffered from compassion fatigue, according to Tompkins. As someone who works in social services, we observe incidents of abuse and neglect. And the burnout that comes from not only watching the animals suffer but also coping with the human emotions that come with it can be exhausting.
According to Tompkins, many people enter into pet health because they love animals, but they may not recognize that most contacts with the animals are unpleasant, such as in cases of terminal illnesses.
According to a research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), female veterinarians are 3.5 times more likely than the general population in the United States to commit suicide, while male veterinarians are 2.1 times more likely. Veterinary technicians are also five times more likely to commit suicide.
While the reasons for this problem vary, pet care industry workers recognize how tough it may be to stay optimistic in their professions, which is sometimes made more difficult by the need to connect with the animal's owner.
According to Tompkins, "a lot of individuals in our field love animals a lot, but they don't always love people in the same way." "And I don't believe everyone recognizes when they enter this industry that it's a really people-centered field," she says.
Tompkins observed that pet owners did not always manage the situation well as pandemic-related restrictions were eased in LA County but available appointments at pet hospitals remained scarce.
Tompkins claims she has witnessed a client brandishing a gun at medical workers after waiting 45 minutes. Because of the long wait times, a customer threatened to kill every staff person at that facility, according to a colleague.
This are extreme examples, but Tompkins explained that circumstances like these occur every day in animal hospitals. Staff are being physically threatened, as well as being screamed at, cussed at, and treated badly.
The enormous attentiveness of many pet owners, according to Elizabeth Vleck, a vet tech at a Banfield Hospital in Seal Beach, might also contribute to staff's declining mental health.
Hypervigilance can lead to people concluding that we aren't properly caring for their pet, according to Vleck. They're a touch more aggressive, which is one of the most common signs of burnout.
Despite the fact that many pet owners are dissatisfied by long wait times and poor information from their veterinarians, this issue may not persist. The pet-care sector is progressively catching up on missed normal appointments and customer check-ups due to the pandemic.
While there are still numerous job openings in the pet business, several large hospitals are hiring at an all-time high. VCA Hospitals, a national network of pet hospitals with more than 2,000 locations, hired more than 5,400 colleagues in 2021, which is 400 more than they hired in 2020, according to Joseph Campbell, external affairs director.
Long-time veteran Schulman, on the other hand, is skeptical that merely recruiting more people will address the problem.
Schulman stated, I genuinely believe the answer to this is far more complicated and far deeper.If [the younger generation] doesn't want to advance, you'll see they're not as dedicated and won't put in the same effort. I don't think they'll change their minds very soon, and we'll see.
Another source of inefficiency is the underutilization of veterinary technicians. Vet techs are trained to perform regular blood draws, weighing, bandaging, and other less intensive procedures, but they don't always do so, leaving busy veterinarians to handle the majority of the work.
We've become increasingly reliant on employees to deliver for doctors in human health care, but we still have a very doctor-dependent business in veterinary medicine, according to Weinstein. However, I believe the practice is beginning to polish its delivery strategy and make greater use of its nursing team.
To assist reduce in-person appointments, several larger hospitals are investing in text messaging systems or online live chats. In 2020, VCA reported a 144 percent increase in live chat users, showing that more patients took advantage of online assistance during lockdowns. Banfield also stated that the volume of their live chat service had more than doubled in the previous year.
Despite the fact that the pet care industry has internal issues to overcome, many pet care experts believe their capacity to adequately care for their pets has not been harmed as a result of these difficulties.
I know how people in our field are, and they're more likely to run in front of a car to avoid hitting an animal, said Tompkins. I know a lot of folks who feel compelled to help animals. So it would not be a purposeful decision to not treat or care for a pet just because they are overburdened.
Professionals in the pet care sector just ask that pet owners attempt to be understanding during this trying period for the industry.
Veterinarians are trying their best, according to Weinstein. Simply be patient, since they genuinely care and want to make a difference.