Getting pets seen quickly by a veterinarian has recently proven to be a difficult task in central Maine. Staffing shortages affecting much of the US labor market are also being seen in veterinary services and delaying medical care for our furry (or feathered or scaly) friends.
Even finding veterinary clinics that accept new clients can be a hassle. Many are reducing their hours or taking other measures to accommodate staff shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors.
The pandemic has also complicated things for clinics as pet adoption rates have skyrocketed, at least in part due to people in isolation looking for an animal companion. This means more people have a pet that needs veterinary care.
But it comes as the region sees a dwindling number of vets in recent years. Veterinarians and support staff like vet techs have left the field due to concerns over the pandemic, and others have cut their hours due to stress and burnout.
“I try to put myself in the shoes of our pet parents,” said Dr. Matt Townsend, past president of the Maine Veterinary Medical Association and the New England Veterinary Medical Association.
He described the problem as a supply and demand problem. In addition to general vets, back-up vets — those who move from clinic to clinic to fill vacancies — are also rare, he said.
And yet another factor is a profession that sees more women vets than men, he said, and many of those women tend to be caregivers to their families, so when a daycare closes or a another problem arises, they have to cut their work schedule to respond.
Townsend sold his veterinary practice, Hometown Veterinary Care in Fairfield, to Rare Breed Veterinary Medical Partners, which is based in Portland. He has since taken on the role of Director of Medical Operations for Rarebreed Veterinary, allowing him to continue practicing while mentoring and advising others in the field.
Dr. Kate Domenico is an emergency and critical care veterinarian at Maine Veterinary Medical Center in Scarborough. She said the pandemic had a profound effect, causing clinics to close, but emergency hospitals remained open. She said she was two to three times busier than before the pandemic.
“We had staff burnout, physician burnout,” she said. “We are certainly overwhelmed by the high number of emergency room visits.”
Emergency veterinary hospitals and clinics are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, requiring night and weekend staff, but Domenico said it was difficult to find people willing to work the night.
Another cause of burnout is compassion fatigue, she said, explaining that in some cases owners are forced to euthanize their pets for financial reasons, even though a medical procedure may resolve the issue. problem.
“It weighs on us as individuals. They don’t really teach the psychological impact of the pitch at school,” Domenico said.
Adding to the stress can be office staff who take the brunt of upset customers that their pet can’t be seen sooner, if at all. This can make it difficult to retain receptionists.
“I’m like, ‘Oh, would I go do something else?’ And I wouldn’t,” Domenico said. “I aim for excellence, not perfection. It’s a new mindset, and it’s how I can do my job so well.
She fears the relationship between vets and their clients will be damaged as some clinics continue to offer curbside services, in which people stay outside while their pet receives care inside. Body language and face-to-face conversations are an important component of trust and communication, especially with emergency medicine and new clients, she said.
The New England Animal Hospital in Waterville is feeling the effects of the vet shortage, but is also expanding.
Dr. Russell Danner purchased the hospital in April 2012, and it specializes in small animal medicine, including exotic animals.
Danner said he has been looking for another vet since his previous one moved to New York State when her husband got a new job. Her son graduated in 2023 from veterinary school; he said he had to make room for her.
“Finding a vet is like finding a unicorn,” Danner said. “I think it’s hard to attract people to Maine because we don’t have a vet school. The few people we send away don’t always come back.
Danner thinks he might be able to overcome staffing issues by offering a new facility and attractive hours for employees. The plan is to more than double in size at the Pleasant Street location of his hospital. Work is scheduled to start next month.
But as the clinic continues to expand, it is still grappling with the impact of the pandemic. Three of its 10 staff members were recently absent due to exposure to the coronavirus.
Dr. Paul Balboni of the Waterville Veterinary Hospital said his office is accepting new clients but reserves six to eight weeks.
“The past two years have been very difficult for all staff with the high call volume, owner stress which has reflected on the staff and of course all the COVID issues,” Balboni said. in an email. “But we are doing well and over time things will improve.”
Winslow Animal Hospital has a licensed veterinarian and veterinary technician, as well as four full-time staff. They are accepting new patients and usually book one to two weeks, but they have stopped performing surgeries.
“We can’t be as efficient with physician time as before because we have to be aware of our clients’ health needs,” said office manager Cindy Rowe.
She explained that scheduling appointments has been problematic as staff members have to stay away from the office after being exposed to the virus and clients have to cancel after being exposed.
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