"There were no appointments available," Garrett says, sounding exasperated at the thought of having to drive 45 minutes or more to an emergency clinic, further distressing her dogs in the car, and landing her at a place where she wouldn't know the veterinary team. "They couldn't see her. All I could get was a drop-off appointment. You bring the dog in at 8 o'clock in the morning, you pay a boarding fee, and the dog stays there all day. The veterinarian basically sees the dog when they get a minute between other appointments."
Garrett’s dogs both turned out to have not serious problems — one needed anti-nausea meds and the other had a minor GI tract problem — but her experience and frustration mirror what countless other pet owners are describing across the nation as the covid-19 pandemic marches on.
The American Veterinary Medical Association says a combination of factors is making it harder for some pet owners to book timely veterinary appointments at the practices they know and trust.
For starters, there’s the continuing puppy-buying craze, which means a lot more new clients than usual are trying to sign up for appointments to receive basic checkups and shots. Then there are all the existing pet owners who, out of fear for their own health, put off routine visits earlier this year, when covid-19 first emerged. The AVMA says that during March and April, when the pandemic first took off, visits among existing clients dropped by about 25 percent. A lot of those people’s pets are running out of time for booster shots and the like, and now need to get in to their veterinarians.
Plus, there also are countless more people working from home, which means they’re spending more time with their pets and noticing potential problems that they want veterinarians to check out. On top of all that, veterinary visits themselves are taking longer because of new protocols to keep everyone safe from the coronavirus.
“I think it’s a little bit regional,” says Douglas Kratt, president of the AVMA and owner of Central Animal Hospital in Onalaska, Wis. “As I talked to some of my colleagues across the country, some of them are seeing that we are having longer wait times. I know my own personal practice, if it’s a scheduled wellness exam, it may not be the same week. And depending on how specific you want — if you’re a Thursday evening person — it might be longer than a week. For urgent care, like a normal pet having abdominal discomfort or vomiting, that might be a couple of days, sometimes a long couple of days, to get in.”
For those who do get an appointment, the most recent data from the AVMA shows only a two- to five-minute increase, on average, in wait times once at the vet. While those time increments can build up throughout the day to leave some animals and their owners waiting longer than others, they’re not an extreme change from wait times before the pandemic.
Kratt says that veterinarians are employing everything from video services to digital communications to try to speed up access. About 80 percent of veterinary clinics the AVMA surveyed now provide curbside care; two-thirds offer contactless payment; and more than a third now offer telemedicine as an option. As with humans, telemedicine visits existed before the pandemic hit, but they have gotten a jump-start since.
Options that veterinarians have for alternative setups are also increasing. Companies such as Chicago-based GuardianVets, Austin-based TeleVet in Texas, and Beverly Hills-based Airvet in California are among numerous companies now promoting app-based services to speed up communications during curbside drop-offs and more quickly connect pet owners with veterinarians.
With curbside appointments, a staff member comes out to get the pet, does the exam and then calls the pet owner in the car to go over the results before they bring the animal back out. Some of the apps connect on live video to the exam room, so you are doing the regular appointment without the vet having to do the exam and then recite everything she just did in a follow-up phone call. That can save five to 10 minutes per appointment by eliminating that post-exam phone call.
“I tell people, if the waits are there and they have questions, reach out to the veterinarian,” Kratt says. “The phone is one way. Some veterinarians are doing text messaging and emailing. There’s telehealth. Instead of a 40-minute appointment [that an owner might have to wait days for], you might be able to get it accomplished via telehealth much quicker.”
Most pet owners seem to understand that veterinarians, like everyone else, are trying to figure out new ways of doing things as the pandemic wears on. But frustration, pet owners say, can quickly build into serious concern and even panic when a pet is in distress.
Jackie Wolf of Montclair, N.J., had the same experience as Garrett in October. Wolf’s 2-year-old dog, Denny, which she describes as a mutt from Puerto Rico, was having a stomach problem. “This isn’t like a wellness visit or shots,” Wolf says. “He was really, really sick.”
Her vet said the first available appointment was in a week and a half.
“You can’t wait that long when something is actually wrong, so I ended up at a vet I’ve never gone to who could get me in,” she says. “I’m not an entitled person who’s screaming, ‘My dog this and that!’ I know that everybody is trying to figure all this out. It would be nice if there were a way to maintain sick-visit hours. Especially when you have a sick pet, you want to get them seen.”
Clients like Wolf are getting caught in the overall crush. Kratt says that as of early November, his practice was seeing patients who were due for wellness visits back in May. Also adding to the mix of appointment requests were people preparing to move to winter homes so they could continue to get outside with their pets in moderate weather, instead of being cooped up inside should new pandemic lockdowns become the norm.
“Some people are now starting to have to move to winter homes in warmer climates, and they need vaccines for travel,” he says.
The good news is that there have not been widespread reports of pets going untreated, AVMA spokesman Michael San Filippo says. There have been reports of delays and frustration with having to go to emergency clinics instead of regular veterinarians, but overall, people’s pets are receiving the care they need.
The combination of factors preventing clients from getting quick appointments with their regular veterinarians is causing emergency clinics nationwide to see a surge in requests for help.
“Our emergency and critical care teams are significantly busier than we’ve ever been,” says Sarah Berger, vice president of marketing for Ohio-based MedVet, which operates a network of 30 emergency and specialty hospitals in 15 states. “It’s 20 to 30 percent busier compared to last year. This is across all of our hospitals. There’s varying degrees of it, but there is a substantial increase everywhere.”
Cases the MedVet facilities are seeing include delayed dental cleanings causing bigger problems; puppies not getting timely vaccinations and then contracting diseases such as parvo (canine parvovirus), a highly contagious virus that can be life-threatening; dogs eating things they shouldn’t eat or getting hurt because families are at home creating more activity — say, kids jumping off the bed and Fido jumping too, and hurting a knee.
“And our feline friends are stressed out,” she says. “Cats are kind of solitary. They’re all like, ‘What are you doing here all day?’ We’re seeing a lot of urinary issues and things that often are caused by stress.”
San Filippo says that vets and owners are doing the best they can, recognizing that “we’re all in this together. We’re seeing pet owners that are understanding and that are being patient with the requirements that veterinarians are being put under. We’re not seeing pets go untreated.”
Garrett says her plan going forward is to make an appointment with her regular veterinarian at the first sign of trouble, far earlier than she would have thought to call for a time slot in the past.
“If I have any concerns, I’ll just call and get an appointment and then cancel if I have to,” she says. “Before, I’ve never had to wait. It’s crazy.”
Earlier versions of this article had misidentified in the captions the titles of staff members of the MedVet clinic. All are veterinary assistants. Their names also have been added to the captions.