-Heather Parsons VMG, MBA
We had hoped (again) that a new year may mean the end of Covid (as though a pandemic follows the calendar). Instead, we face new lockdowns across the country, and pet owners are grappling with the persistent "new normal" of veterinary care in Canada.
For the first time in many years (or perhaps ever?), demand is outpacing supply for veterinary medicine in Canada. Over the past decade, Canadian pet statistics have been flat. Mirroring our own population, numbers of dogs and cats held steady but weren't growing.
The Covid-19 pandemic sparked an increase in pet ownership. Many Canadians were suddenly working from home. No commute to the office and a severely limited social life meant the perfect time to add a furry new family member! 18% of current Canadian pet owners have acquired their pet since the start of the pandemic.
For the first time in many people's recollections (or perhaps ever!), veterinary clinics across Canada are not taking new clients. Suddenly, veterinary practices are overloaded with new patients while simultaneously missing staff due to covid infections and isolations, parents needing to be home with kids learning from home, and general staff shortages in an industry with already astounding turnover.
What impact do staff shortages have?
Across Canada, there have been reports of emergency practices closing due to staff shortages leading to harrowing stories of owners trying to find care for their pets. Many general practices have had to limit their hours without enough team members to provide full coverage. Routine surgeries are often delayed as the team focuses on urgent and emergency issues.
After decades of being able to schedule appointments at their convenience, many owners face long waits to be seen while new pet owners find it challenging to get on the roster of overfull and under-staffed practices.
Staff shortages are impacting clinics at every level, from the front-end team to veterinarians. Many provinces have mandatory isolation rules, so even people with minor colds cannot come to work.
What impact has curbside had?
Many practices across Canada continue to practice curbside medicine, bringing patients into the practice without their owners. In some regions, this is done to adhere to governmental regulations; in others, it is a voluntary move by practices to limit exposure to their teams.
Owners have, understandably, struggled to adjust to the "new normal" of not being able to accompany their pet into their appointment. Clinics who have elected to operate curbside have not made this decision lightly. The impact of a team member contracting Covid-19 could be catastrophic to a clinic. Beyond the risk to the individual team member, everyone else on the team would need to isolate, which would effectively shut down the clinic, preventing the team from being able to care for their beloved patients.
What is the impact on pets?
Although every clinic is doing their best to see their patients promptly, many routine visits are being delayed. Minor concerns are seen within weeks rather than days. The challenge of relaying information via phone in curbside medicine impacts the flow of information between the owner and the clinic.
Although exams are just as thorough as always, the lack of more casual conversation means owners are not always remembering to bring up various concerns and questions, leading to additional calls and emails following appointments.
The elephant in the room….are they still kind to my pet?
Yes. Your veterinary team is absolutely treating your pet with the same kindness and compassion you have always witnessed. If you don't feel confident they are, find a new vet. You deserve a team that you feel total confidence in, and your veterinary team deserves your trust.
I had all 5 of my dogs at the vet recently for routine vaccines/exams/bloodwork. My clinic has been 100% curbside throughout the pandemic. They are a small practice in a small building; social distancing would be difficult or impossible.
My dogs were taken in one by one. 4 of my dogs were happy to trot off with the technician (whom they know and like). Their waggy tails are a testament to how well the whole team treats them. My 5th dog is NOT happy to be led away. He wants to stay with me. Although he is a friendly dog with a stable temperament, he has no interest in going off with someone else. As he walks into the clinic, he does NOT look happy. If I only had him, I might wonder if the experience wasn't a pleasant one.
Many pets are nervous about a vet visit, despite the gentle care of the team. If your pet looks less than thrilled to head off without you, it probably isn't a sign that they're not being treated with the utmost respect and care.
What is the impact on people?
Veterinary medicine is a calling. The wages are low compared to other professions requiring similar education, the hours are long, the job is hard. I have worked with veterinary teams across Canada (and around the world) for my entire career. I have always found them to be the most caring, compassionate people. They are in the industry because they desperately want to help pets (and their owners!).
Making people and pets wait or turning patients away is extremely hard on the veterinary team. In addition to their own strong sense of responsibility to care for the patients they love, they are often faced with frustrated owners who are looking for someone to blame for the current, awful situation.
What can pet owners do?
Be a bit extra-cautious with your pets. When emergency practices are having to turn away patients, it probably isn't the right time to try some high-risk activities :). Be aware of closures in your area and have a backup plan. What are the current hours of your practice? Where can you go for urgent or emergency care if your pet needs to be seen?
Work on your pet being comfortable in a kennel or tethered. Pets that can't be safely crated/kenneled require a team member to be with them 100% of the time, adding significant time to the whole day.
Arrive a bit early for your appointment. It can often take a few minutes to call the practice to let them know you're there and to have one of their team members come out. Being 10 minutes early can mean your pet is seen at their appointment time, helping keep the whole day running smoothly.
If you have a non-urgent question, consider sending an email instead of calling. This can take a bit of pressure off your busy veterinary team's day.
Please be kind to your veterinary team. My dogs are deeply beloved. I seek the best care I can for them and TRULY understand the frustration of not being able to be seen when or where I want. It is very easy for me to get upset or angry because I am deeply emotionally invested.
Try and take a step back and remember that veterinary teams are truly doing everything they can to help you and your pet. Their patients are absolutely their primary concern, and they are upset when they have to make you wait or (even worse) turn you away.
Please be patient. Try to be understanding about having to wait for appointments or having an appointment rescheduled. If you can, have some backup plans in place so you have alternatives. If you're worried your pet is in pain or is uncomfortable, ask your veterinary team if there is something you can get to help until the appointment.
What can veterinary team members do?
Try and remember to take care of yourselves. With the pressure of caring for patients, managing curbside, and balancing urgent and routine issues, it can be easy to forget to do some self-care, too. Take time with your families. Get out into nature if you can, clear your head and get some perspective.
This is an unprecedented time in veterinary medicine; allow yourself to feel sad or upset or angry. If you're feeling overwhelmed, reach out for help from a friend, family member, or a professional. Get the support you need.
Together, we can navigate a new normal that seems here to stay for the foreseeable future. With a bit of patience and understanding on both sides, and taking a moment to remember that we ALL want the same thing - to take great care of this beloved pet, we can build a new normal that is sustainable.
Where can Veterinary Professionals turn for help?
Call the direct suicide support line at 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645 if you or another person is in crisis and suicidal.
1-800-663-1142. Press (1) for immediate crisis support, offered 24/7. homeweb.ca
1-844-880-9137 workhealthlife.com (available to OVMA members and their family)
Professionals Health Program: 1-800-851-6606 (available to veterinarians registered with College of Veterinarians of Ontario only)
506-858-9180 cpamoncton.ca/fr (French) cpamoncton.ca/en/ (English)
Direct suicide support: 1-800-218-2885
Mental Health Crisis Centre (NL): 1-888-737-4668
Canadian association for suicide prevention NWT: 1-800-661-0844 nwthelpline.ca Nunavut/Nunavik: 1-800-265-3333