How Veterinary Clinics Fared During COVID-19
The COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 affected the daily lives of companion animals, including their time spent with guardians, their walking and feeding schedules, and their medical care. Many veterinary clinics were affected and continue to be affected by the pandemic lockdowns, but experts are still uncertain of the exact impacts.
In this study, researchers used multiple methods to learn how the pandemic changed the working conditions of veterinary staff. They looked at survey data collected by other researchers as well as press releases and newsletters from industry groups and professional institutions. They also interviewed frontline staff in veterinary clinics in the U.S. and Canada. The mixed-methods research allowed them to check their findings from one method against the others.
Overall, veterinary clinics had more clients than they could handle. At the beginning of the pandemic, about 70% of veterinary clinics closed. When they reopened, many only provided urgent or emergency care. Once they were ready to perform wellness exams again, clinics didn’t have the ability to provide as many exams as animals needed. The pandemic also increased the number of people who wanted to adopt or purchase animals. Puppies and kittens need vaccinations and to be spayed or neutered, which made appointments even scarcer.
When a clinic closed because of a covid-19 outbreak, it further strained other clinics. 77% of veterinary clinics reported that they had more clients during the pandemic. Emergency clinics had a particular difficulty remaining fully staffed.
Worsening the situation, under pandemic restrictions, veterinarians could see fewer animals. A wellness exam normally takes half an hour, but during the height of the pandemic it took forty-five minutes to an hour and a half. Personal protective equipment that the staff wore at all times made performing some common procedures, like splitting pills, slower. Sanitizing equipment rooms added more time.
The authors note that many animals experienced more stress than usual during their COVID-19 veterinary visits. For one thing, having guardians around the house more often made them more attuned to their animals’ behavior — and more likely to make veterinary appointments when things changed. Around 70% of clinics in the U.S. and Canada closed their doors to the public to avoid disease transmission during the pandemic, which meant that animals were attending their appointments without their guardians. For many animals, this was extremely stressful.
The pandemic also complicated communication with guardians. 70% of clinics received more emails, and 80% received more phone calls. Because guardians could not go inside with their animals, they only had one phone consultation with the veterinarian. If the guardian forgot to ask something or had further questions, it often delayed the appointment. . Many guardians used “gig” drivers to pick up food and medication, who were often unfamiliar with the process or didn’t know the guardian’s details. The pressure of the pandemic made many guardians angry and stressful for veterinary staff to interact with. Some guardians disrespected pandemic safety protocols or were verbally or even physically abusive.
During the pandemic, clinics often ran out of essential supplies. 82% of clinics had shortages of pet food, medications, or personal protective equipment. 56% ran out of at least one of those items entirely. Vaccines were in particularly short supply. Veterinary staff had to reuse and sanitize single-use latex gloves and masks. A shortage of euthanasia drugs meant staff had to use alternative drugs, which are more difficult to use. Earlier in the pandemic, veterinary staff euthanized animals in car parks so that their guardians could be with them. However, the new euthanasia drugs couldn’t be used in a car park. The guardians couldn’t be with the animal as they died, even masked and gloved, because the new procedures were so complicated.
Before the pandemic, veterinary staff typically had poor working conditions: low pay, long hours, little appreciation, injuries, compassion fatigue, and burnout. The pandemic worsened these conditions. Veterinary staff worked longer hours, covered shifts with no notice, postponed holiday plans, and didn’t take time off they were entitled to. Veterinary organizations often recommended “self-care” without acknowledging or working to change the conditions that created so much stress.
From this research, it’s clear that the pandemic worsened already stressful conditions for veterinary staff. If faced with emergencies and delays in the future, the authors discuss several ways of making things easier for both clinics and their patients. For example, registered veterinary technicians can be used instead of doctors for appointments addressing nutrition, weight gain, oral health, and other commonplace issues. Likewise, there may be opportunities for clinics to offer telehealth appointments if an animal doesn’t need to be seen in person. While the COVID-19 lockdowns and delays were an exceptional circumstance, it’s important to learn from it.