Veterinarians across the U.S. are dealing with more pets without enough medically trained staff to help care for them.
Demand for their services has heightened as a result of the pet adoption boom during pandemic lockdowns and staff shortages in some areas. Baby boomers are retiring, others are leaving the profession because of burnout, and veterinary schools are falling short of graduates to fill positions.
To meet demand, veterinary clinics have stopped accepting new patients, tried to hire more staff and extended service hours. Pet owners have to wait longer to secure appointments.
“We’re slammed all day, every day,” said Jen Reiller, the office manager of the Del Ray Animal Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia.
Although the clinic is accepting new patients, the wait time for an appointment is about two weeks, she said. Before the pandemic, the clinic was usually able to book same-day appointments.
The Del Ray Animal Hospital is trying to hire another veterinarian to increase its number from three to four, Ms. Reiller said.
She said the clinic sees about 10 to 12 more new patients a day, mainly puppies, than it did before the pandemic. Patients number 40 to 60 a day.
About 12.6 million U.S. households adopted a pet last year after the pandemic was declared in March, The Associated Press reported, citing a study by the American Pet Products Association.
An estimated 84.9 million U.S. households owned pets in 2019 and 2020, up from 79.7 million in 2015 and 2016, surveys showed.
Experts say fewer people relinquished their pets last year, which meant a higher need for ongoing care.
Several factors have contributed to the increased demand for veterinary services. One is that many pet owners are catching up with annual checkups and other postponed preventive care, said Michael San Filippo, a spokesperson for the American Veterinary Medical Association.
“Owners are doing more for their pets during each veterinary visit, perhaps because they have more funds available due to less spending on things like dining out and travel during the pandemic,” Mr. San Filippo said.
Pet owners could be noticing more health problems because they are spending more time with their animals at home, he added.
A survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association found that the number of patients a veterinarian typically saw in an hour declined 25% last year because each visit took more time. Wait times rose from an average of 11 minutes in 2019 to 20 minutes in 2020, Mr. San Filippo said.
Pet owners took the same number of trips to veterinarians in 2020 as in 2019, but that increased 2.1% in the first half of this year, according to data compiled by the AVMA and VetSuccess, a veterinary data and marketing firm.
“This growth in visits, combined with the impacts to productivity, greatly affects how busy practices and veterinary care teams are feeling right now,” Mr. San Filippo said.
Individual clinics across the country are reporting upticks in demand and visits from more clients.
Banfield Pet Hospital, a national provider of preventive veterinary medicine, reported about half a million more pet visits last year than in 2019. Its telehealth service more than doubled in daily volume from March through the end of 2020.
The company said 9.2% more young dogs and 12.4% more young cats were brought to its veterinary clinics last year than in 2019, the first increase in a decade.
Banfield estimated last year that 75 million pets in the U.S. might not receive the veterinary care they need by 2030, partially because of the shortage of trained professionals.
Dr. Jatain Sondhi, veterinarian and owner of Rancho Bernardo Pet Hospital in San Diego, said the animal hospital saw about 200 new patients last month and about 150 during lockdowns, compared with about 75 new patients each month before the pandemic.
Dr. Lesa Staubus, a veterinarian for American Humane’s rescue team, noted that many regions have shortages of veterinarians as pet ownership rises.
Even before the pandemic, veterinarians struggled to meet demand. Experts said the industry is growing at a rate that can’t keep up with the need for pet care.
Dr. James W. Lloyd, a former dean of the University of Florida veterinary college, estimated that the shortage is growing each year at a rate of 3,000 to 5,000 veterinarians, Today’s Veterinary Business reported in February.
The availability of veterinarians varies across the U.S. Rural and farm animal veterinary medicine typically faces a larger labor shortage and excess demand, Mr. San Filippo said.
The Del Ray Animal Hospital had been understaffed for years, Ms. Reiller said. The veterinarian position has been open for about five years.
Rancho Bernardo Pet Hospital, however, has been able to hire more staff.
Dr. Sondhi said he hired another veterinarian, two veterinarian assistants, a receptionist and a technician over the past few months to address the increase in demand.
He said his clinic grew because some longtime veterinarians in the area shuttered their practices over coronavirus concerns while pet adoptions “went through the roof.”
As more people spend more time at home with their pets and notice their ailments, Dr. Sondhi said, they feel a responsibility.
“People feel morally and ethically obligated to fix those problems because they have realized that the pets have brought so much joy to their lives,” he said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.