Public radio from Western Michigan University 102.1 NPR News | 89.9 Classical WMUK
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Shortages in veterinary care are still affecting clinics and shelters

A dog lies upside down on an operating table as a veterinarian operates, right, and a veterinarian assistant stands by to the left. Pink and blue tubes frame the picture in the foreground
Damian Dovarganes/AP
Veterinarian Dr. Peyvand Silverman, right, and senior veterinary assistant Maria Silva spay a dog at an ASPCA clinic in South Los Angeles in 2014.

Animal clinics face a shortage of veterinary technicians. They've also had to contend with a lack of critical supplies, such as euthanasia drugs.

Last spring we reported on the pandemic's impact on veterinarians. The shutdown in March of 2020 had created a backlog in non-emergency appointments. A year later it's not as hard to get a vet appointment. But many clinics still face staff and supply shortages, and it's not clear when that will change. That's made an already high-pressure job even harder.

'Vet shortage' may bring to mind images of people and their pets waiting in clinic parking lots. That's part of the problem, but a shortage of vet care also affects shelters.

Lots of animals, not enough vet hours

The SPCA of Southwest Michigan is an adoption and rescue facility for dogs and other pets. Katie Timber is the Executive Director.

"Things are starting to pick up back to where they were just in the last 6 months. Everyone was provided care, but it certainly wasn't as easy as it had initially been," Timber said.

It wasn't as easy to get the animals in to see a vet. Meanwhile the SPCA had to care for more animals than ever. The nonprofit rescues would-be pets from high-kill shelters. Timber said intakes have risen dramatically during the pandemic.

"We've had weeks where its 100 animal intakes, and then we've had 100 animals plus and fostered and then 150 animals here, and it's like my goodness, where are these pets coming from?" Timber said.

The SPCA had so many intakes that it had to flex their foster program requirements to make it more accessible for community members.

"There are so many animals that are going to be euthanized in shelters that don't have space for them so we had to ask the community to open their homes so we could save as many lives as possible," Timber said.

In the two-plus years since the pandemic began, veterinary service, like many other sectors has faced a range of problems. Labor challenges that existed before the pandemic have, not surprisingly, only gotten worse, and critical materials have sometimes been short in supply. The SPCA feels those effects.

"Definitely overwhelmed"

Timber says the shelter employs six vets from local clinics. COVID forced those clinics to hold curbside appointments, which take longer than indoor visits. That leaves the vets with less time for the pets at the SPCA.

"They have their regular jobs which they were behind in and then they have this job, so it was really hard to navigate care," Timber said.

The switch to curbside is not the only burden for vets. Gary Ryder is a veterinarian at the VCA emergency clinic in Kalamazoo who also works with the SPCA. Ryder says the most pressing issue is a shortage of vet techs, the workers who assist vets in care including surgery.

"There are times when we have two doctors and only one tech, where ideally you want to have one to two techs per doctor, so they are definitely overwhelmed," Ryder said.

Ryder says turnover's always been high, but it's only gotten worse during COVID.

"It's 20-30 percent yearly of staff turnover, it's always been like that," Ryder said.

That of course affects clients who show up needing care for their pets. Some who ended on waitlists elsewhere have come to Ryder's emergency clinic for non-emergency care, waiting as long as six hours to see a vet. Ryder said sometimes he has to turn people away.

"It hurts my soul to tell someone that we can't see them because were too busy. I want to see everything that needs to be seen but sometimes there's not enough hours and not enough staff to facilitate that, " Ryder said.

Running low on euthanasia drugs

Ryder said clinics also have to contend with a lack of supplies.

"We're at a point where we have to go to other vets in the area for urinary catheters for cats because we ran out," Ryder said.

He added that that's not the worst shortage that the VCA has faced.

"There was a very scary period of time where euthanasia solution was unavailable. It was on back order. We just couldn't get it," Ryder said.

In the end the clinic was able to get by, but it was a close call.

"The AVMA, the American Veterinary Medical Association, came out with guidelines on different ways to euthanize pets that were kind of scary, using different things that we were very uncomfortable with," Ryder said.

Erin Howard is the president of the Michigan affiliate of the AVMA. She said the proposed alternatives were drugs that work just as well. But Howard agrees the shortages are a real problem.

"It's a big variable on what products are going to be available one week versus the next week. It's a big game we don't really enjoy," she said.

She added that staffing shortages have persisted as a major problem.

"Staffing-wise we're still in a critical mode," Howard said.

She said labor and supply shortages have made a tough job tougher. According to Howard, mental health in the field is poor.

"We have one of the highest suicide rates of any profession," she said.

Howard said there is also a lot of burnout in the profession, and since lots of people are leaving veterinary medicine it's putting even more work onto those who stick around.

"Hopefully we can do some better problem-solving and find ways that we can not only attract new people to this profession, but also retain the people that are already here," Howard said.

However, it's not as hard now to get a vet appointment as it was early in the pandemic.

Christina Anthony adopted her dog Moose from the SPCA in October.

Though the VCA clinic has sometimes been swamped, Anthony said she had no problem getting Moose in there.

"It's very clean, we've never had any issues getting appointments, the vets are very nice, it's just worked for us," Anthony said.

But Howard with the MVMA said she knows these are difficult times for many vets. She encouraged them to talk with the group about the problems they're facing, even if those problems will be hard to solve.