With more people adopting pets during the pandemic and staffing issues, area veterinarians are being stretched thin and are overwhelmed with clients.
The situation has prompted some local veterinary offices to stop taking new clients. Braden Run Animal Hospital in Franklin Township, Greene County, and Blout Veterinary in Hopwood, Fayette County, have done just that.
“Currently, just for annual checkups, shots, things like that, I am booking into October already,” said Dr. Justine Blout, owner of Blout Veterinary. “I had to stop taking new clients because I don’t think that’s fair to the clients I have.”
“We’re working through lunch. We’re staying late. Even with that, we can’t meet the demands of new clients wanting in,” said Dr. Anita McMillen, owner of Braden Run Animal Hospital.
Meanwhile, All About Pets, on Jefferson Avenue in Washington, only recently started seeing new patients again.
“I would say about five months ago, we had to stop taking new clients in. We just didn’t have enough room to even get our established clients in,” said Gina Stafford, a veterinarian technician at All About Pets.
She said it can take as long as three or four weeks to get an appointment.
With a full schedule, Blout, the Fayette County veterinarian, said she has had issues with people making appointments, finding an earlier appointment elsewhere, and then neglecting to cancel. It’s led Blout to implement a “no-call, no-show” policy, and charging customers who don’t keep appointments.
“That’s the time we have allotted for you. You have to pay for that time because you’re taking it from somebody else. I have staff members here. I still have to pay them,” Blout said.
The veterinarians interviewed agree that the added strain on services is due, in some part, to an increase in pet ownership over the past year.
“When COVID happened, a lot of people decided to get new animals,” Stafford said, adding that new pet owners have had a difficult time getting established with a veterinarian office.
Beyond more people getting pets, veterinarians are dealing with another side effect of the pandemic: a labor shortage.
“I think a lot of the workforce is upside down,” said Kelly Proudfit, executive director of the Washington Area Humane Society. “People can leave here and make more money doing a job with a lot less stress.”
Proudfit says the humane society conducts four low-cost vaccination clinics and two cat spay days a month, and that appointments fill up fast. Meanwhile, she has trouble retaining a full-time veterinarian.
“I’ve really struggled to keep our vet team together. If I lose my vet techs, we can’t care for the animals, and that’s a problem,” Proudfit said, adding that she has added health benefits for employees to stay competitive.
Blout has had to deal with veterinary technicians leaving for higher-paying positions in less stressful environments, and finding new people and getting them to stick around is equally challenging.
“We advertise and advertise for more help and more staff. It’s the problem I think every small business is having,” Blout said. “The problem with vet medicine is we need people who are a little more skilled ... it takes months to get them trained to do the job.”
Braden Run is down to two people – McMillen and one veterinarian technician. She said she lost three people in January, and has had to have her groundskeeper act as a technician’s assistant.
Not only are there issues with employees leaving the industry, McMillen said larger veterinarian hospitals in the Pittsburgh area are attracting technicians from smaller practices to deal with their own shortages. She said her sole employee has received letters offering sign-on bonuses.
“It has made everyone feel so much more isolated. Veterinarians are so competitive with each other,” McMillen said. “It has become dog eat dog, literally.”
With a lack of help, Blout says veterinarians have been “pushed into making tough decisions as a profession.”
For McMillen, that means not being able to answer the phone.
“We don’t answer the phone, because it’s just the two of us. We check messages when we get a chance,” McMillen said, adding that they are too busy to even give price estimates.
Both Blout and McMillen say all of these issues have combined to create some frustrated clients, and they have had to deal with angry and abusive customers.
“This is a high-stress field,” Blout said. “When it comes to people’s emotional attachment to pets, it heightens everyone’s sensitivities. We deal with a lot of people every day very mad at us that we can’t fit more people in. When the schedule is full, the schedule is full. These poor individuals are getting yelled at on a daily basis. People in the veterinary field – you’re in it because you love animals and you want to help, but we’re still human.”
McMillen has had to put a “zero tolerance” policy in place, and has no issue showing particularly abusive customers the door.
“I just ask them where they’d like their records sent,” she said.
Blout and McMillen pointed out that veterinarians have a higher rate of suicide than the rest of the population.
According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, male veterinarians are about twice as likely to die by suicide compared to the general population, and female veterinarians are 3.5 times more likely.
With that in mind, Blout hopes that angry clients will “remember the human.”
“Veterinarians are selected for a very certain personality ... When we fail, it hits us hard,” she said. “When I’m preaching ‘please be kind,’ I mean it.”
McMillen emphasized that the vast majority of her clients are kind and empathetic to the problems her practice is facing.
“It’s that few that can really drag you down. We’re just not letting that happen anymore,” McMillen said.