Animal Tales: The rise in pet ownership is straining local vets

VCA Lewiston Animal Hospital veterinary assistant Ashlynn Foss, left, and technical supervisor Sonja Harris examine Harley at the facility Friday afternoon on Stetson Road in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham / Journal of the Sun

LEWISTON – If you haven’t adopted a ‘pandemic puppy’ in the past year and a half, it’s probably someone you know has.

While the company of our furry friends has been a lifeline for many during this time, the boom in pet ownership combined with the challenges of practicing veterinary medicine during a public health emergency has put a strain on the vets who keep our loved ones healthy.

Denise Morin is a Customer Service Representative and Veterinary Assistant at VCA Lewiston Animal Hospital on Stetson Road. She said there were simply not enough available staff or hours in the day to meet the demand that has increased since the early days of the pandemic.

“We would fill our appointment schedule quickly and the appointments were pushed further and further away,” she said in an email. “It is now to the point that we make routine appointments until the end of September / beginning of October. Other local veterinary hospitals are reserving until December. “

Each day they reserve a few appointment slots for emerging cases, but more often than not these slots are booked immediately and staff will begin referring people to other clinics in the area.

“The phones immediately start ringing at 7 a.m. – and don’t stop until 6 p.m. – and we get so many other calls for these precious places,” Morin said.

Nearby, at the Mid-Maine Animal Emergency Clinic on Strawberry Avenue in Lewiston, hospital director Dawn Eliot-Johnson said the clinic’s parking lot often filled up before it even opened. The clinic is open 24/7 for walk-in appointments.

“Almost immediately we have a two to four hour wait. We have doubled our vet staff and would love to have more vet technicians, but there is a shortage of licensed or even experienced technicians in our area, ”said Eliot-Johnson.

It might not be so much that there are fewer and fewer vets and vet techs getting licensed each year, said Maine state veterinarian Dr Michele Walsh, but the number of people entering the profession each year has not kept pace with the boom. in pet ownership – up to 8% nationwide in 2020, according to a January report released by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the number of licensed veterinarians in the state increased only about 2% from 2019 to 2020. The number of veterinary technicians declined by just under 4%.

“But I think it’s multifactorial,” said Walsh, who has been in the job for 8 and a half years.

Veterinary clinics did not close during the pandemic, but instead moved to a new model of care – curbside treatment, telehealth follow-ups and more – that increased the time needed for each appointment. And the financial impact that many people have faced over the past 16 months has exacerbated an already existing trend that people who could not afford routine visits would seek care only in emergency situations, Walsh said.

There is only a handful of after-hours emergency clinics in the state, the Mid-Maine Animal Emergency Clinic in Lewiston being one of them.

“Sometimes front desk staff have had to judge the severity of an illness and the urgency it needs to be looked at,” said Morin, of VCA Lewiston Animal Hospital. “Unfortunately, we can’t make an appointment for all the pets that need them because we just don’t have the staff or enough hours in the day to greet them and say yes to all of them.”

They will refer people to the Lewiston Emergency Clinic or Veterinary Quick Care in Freeport, another walk-in clinic.

Morin said sometimes all appointments available for the day at the Freeport clinic will be made within an hour of opening and wait times exceed “hours.”

“It’s heartbreaking for our staff,” said Morin.

While the situation looks frightening, it shouldn’t discourage people from adopting pets or seeking care for them, Walsh said. “There are a lot of vets, quality vets practicing in our state who want to see everyone’s animals and care for as many animals as possible.”

Although the pandemic has exacerbated existing trends, several initiatives aim to attract more people to the profession.

There are two programs – one state and one federal – that offer student debt relief to people who will devote a certain number of years to practicing in Maine. Another program of the Maine Veterinary Medical Association’s educational foundation offers more than $ 30,000 in scholarships per year, said executive director Katherine Soverel.

the Help the Fix ME program through the Maine Animal Welfare program, provides low-cost sterilization and sterilization for those who cannot afford it, which helps control overcrowding, Walsh said.

Walsh encouraged anyone with a pet to find a veterinarian and schedule this routine checkup as soon as possible.

“I think part of the responsibility of pet owners is that you should make an effort to have a relationship before any emergency occurs with your local vet,” she said. “You might have to wait for a date, but it’s worth the investment and creating that relationship. “

Animal Tales is a recurring Sun Journal article on Animals and Their People. Do you have an idea for Animal Tales? Call Emily Bader at 780-9103 or email her at [email protected]


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