EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Anyone who’s a pet parent knows the importance of having a veterinarian there when you need them most.

But like many industries, the pandemic added new layers of complexity to an already fragile field.

Data provided by the Potter League for Animals showed shelter adoptions have increased over the years in Rhode Island, topping 9,500 last year, when people had to hunker down indoors.

  • 2017: 5,448
  • 2018: 7,378
  • 2019: 8,489
  • 2020: 9,546

But Potter League CEO Brad Shear said most pets that went to new homes during the pandemic came from other distributors.

“We did seem to see is an increase in pet acquisition overall, but a larger part of those pets were coming from pet stores, breeders, other sources other than rescues or shelters,” he explained, adding that shelters didn’t have enough supply to meet the demand.

“That interstate transport stopped for a large part of the year, especially if there was a spike in COVID cases in those communities they were coming from or here, where we had travel restrictions,” Shear continued.

Jake Levin and his friend Sara adopted a dog from a New York shelter this past August and said trying to find a veterinarian was stressful.

“The first two just were not taking new patients. They were maxed out. One of them specifically told us due to the pandemic, they’d had such an increase in animals they were seeing and taking care of,” Levin recalled. “The other two were able to get us appointments but it wasn’t for weeks out.”

That’s because, according to several local veterinarians, there’s a shortage of people in the industry. At the start of October, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) had more than 4,600 job postings nationwide listed on its website.

“We were already seeing a shortage, but then, during the pandemic, the demand for veterinarian care just exploded,” said Dr. Justine Johnson, DVM, co-owner of Ocean State Veterinary Specialists (OSVS) in East Greenwich.

12 News has learned at least one clinic in Rhode Island closed its doors during the pandemic, but the exact cause is unclear at this time. The clinic did not respond to requests for comment.

“It is hands down the most difficult time I’ve ever had as a doctor,” said Dr. Catherine Lund, DVM, owner of City Kitty. She said most practices have seen upwards of a 15–20% increase in clients from 2019.

“We’ve lost a lot of individuals because of pandemic issues,” Lund added. “That’s either child care, or stress, burnout … numerous reasons they left the field.”

According to the Journal for the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), compared to other medical professions, vet techs have one of the highest turnover rates. Veterinarians’ turnover rate is roughly double that of other doctors.

Both Shear and Lund said the pandemic forced clinics to change how they operate, causing even more strain.

What is the answer?

There’s no clear answer to solve the worker shortage, according to every veterinary professional who spoke to 12 News, but they said preventative care can really help.

An uptick in the need for care coupled with not enough staff on hand to see patients is causing problems for some pet owners.

“These people are frequently forced to call like 8 or 9 or 10 practices just to try to find somebody who can take them in,” Lund said.

The emergency hospital is also feeling the affects, Johnson said.

“Turning patients away has been emotionally hard,” she said, “We’re working hard to not end up at a place that can’t see life-threatening problems.”

In some cases, wait times at OSVS’s emergency room have nearly doubled since the pandemic hit, according to Johnson.

“Three hours is average right now, but we’ve definitely have had 6–8 hour waits,” Johnson said.

Johnson offered some preventative care steps owners can take to help keep their pets healthy and safe:

  • Be aware of pet dangers, especially foods or plants that make your pet sick. Keep those items out of reach.
  • Secure the trash so animals can’t access foreign objects.
  • Keep dogs leashed, both on roads and around other dogs.

If your pet is in need of care, veterinarians say don’t hesitate to call them, and if you’re turned away, call around to seek availability at another clinic.

“There are even waiting lists in veterinary clinics and on-call lists,” said Dr. Christopher Hannafin, DVM, department chair of NEIT’s veterinary technology program.

Regular wellness visits and establishing a relationship with a veterinarian is also recommended.

“When it comes to an urgent need for your pet, veterinarians are much more likely to squeeze in an animal that has been a client and they know,” Shear explained.

Rhode Island’s current Veterinary Practice Act doesn’t require veterinary technicians to be licensed, according to Hannafin, but by adjusting the law and giving more responsibility to technicians, he said it could create a better work environment for everyone.

“If technicians can do more — legally and properly — then the veterinarian is freed up to do more,” Hannafin said. “It leads to a better veterinary team, more quality of services, and more productivity because the technician is empowered by the law and training to do more.”

At this time, the R.I. Department of Health said there are no plans to license vet techs at the state level.

Hannafin also suggested that utilizing other staff in the clinics more effectively could help with the worker shortage.

“We would promote veterinary assistants and kennel assistants and practice managers to help run the practice and do more of the essential day-to-day operations that can free up the higher-trained individuals to be available to see patients,” he said.

An emergency can be unnerving, but those in the industry ask for patience, kindness, and an understanding during this difficult time.

Lastly, Shear urged owners to get pet insurance, which can help pay for expensive care.

“Getting insurance for your pets is a great way to help them out,” Shear said, “It takes that financial issues out of your discussion with your veterinarian.”