Pandemic pet surge overwhelms animal hospitals

Dr. Sonya Zehle, a veterinarian at River Cove Animal Hospital in Williston, conducts a physical exam on Winter, a husky, on Oct. 23. Photo by Jenny Koppang/VTDigger

By Jenny Koppang


Pandemic-induced isolation triggered a surge in the adoption of furry companions. Today, Vermont’s understaffed and emotionally taxed veterinarians say they struggle to accommodate the influx of pet owners seeking animal care.

River Cove Animal Hospital in Williston recently stopped accepting new clients to keep up with increasing demands, according to Dr. Sonya Zehle, one of its six veterinarians.

“The number of people that we see in a day has increased significantly. A busy day three years ago looks like every single day now,” Zehle said. “And a larger volume of pets brings a larger volume of problems and emergencies.”

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the practice often would refer patients to specialists for more individualized care, but the specialized sector is also buckling under the number of animals in need of medical attention.

Similarly, Zehle said, local emergency veterinary services are facing a tidal wave of issues among household pets while the providers strain under shortages of staff and supplies. General practices have had to adjust to support the patients that bounce back to them.

“In addition to the daily things that we take on in terms of preventative health care, we’re also having to manage a lot more emergencies and clients which previously we would have recommended to a cardiologist or internal medicine specialist,” Zehle said.

Veterinary technician Jocelyn Lysik takes phone calls from pet owners at River Cove Animal Hospital in Williston on Oct. 23.
Photo by Jenny Koppang/VTDigger

Burlington Emergency and Veterinary Specialists, or BEVS, also in Williston, has recently shifted to “full diversion” protocol. This means that it will only accept patients in extremely critical condition. The office is down 50 percent of its staff compared with two years ago, said Cam Fisher, a technician’s assistant at BEVS.

“In order to accommodate this huge surge of patients while still providing a high-quality, consistent level of care, we are being forced to make hard decisions about who to accept coming into the emergency hospital,” Fisher said.

BEVS implemented a system of tiers ranging from Levels 1-5 to assess the urgency of a given situation. Level 1 cases apply to animals who will not survive without immediate medical attention, while Level 5 involves casual care such as nail trims and vaccines.

But in light of the recent onslaught of cases, Fisher said BEVS struggled to juggle even the most urgent cases, leading it to adopt an additional level of “full diversion,” which means they are treating only Level 1 issues. 

“The patient-to-staff ratio was out of hand. Patients could be waiting as long as 10 hours to be seen. We just couldn’t keep up with the amount of animals coming through the door,” Fisher said. “So we created a full diversion which means that if your pet isn’t a Level 1, we unfortunately have to send them to other clinics in the area.”

Pets experiencing issues from Levels 2-5 can be sent as far as New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, Fisher said.

“Diversion can be problematic because it forces patients to travel really far away for care,” she said.

Veterinary staff say they are not only dealing with an overwhelming volume of patients, but also a generation of poorly trained pets.

“We’ve even coined the term ‘Covid-dog’ at the clinic,” Fisher said. “These are the animals we have to keep an eye on because they were born during the pandemic and haven’t been socialized.”

Additionally, people spending more time at home made them better attuned to their older pets’ needs, according to Karen Boychick, a full-time appointment technician at the Waterbury Animal Hospital and an as-needed tech at BEVS.

“We’re getting a lot of people who are seeking extra care, like wanting to discuss pain medications for their old arthritic dogs after seeing them hobble around during the day,” Boychick said.

Boychick helps manage some of the 50 or so patients who come through the doors at the Waterbury hospital as well as the barrage of emergent cases at BEVS. She said that her mental health has drastically declined since the pandemic began.

She worked every day of May 2020, she said.

“I was absolutely fried, but I knew they needed me, and I was physically able to be there,” she said. “We tend to care so much about the animals that we forget to care for ourselves.”

Veterinarians can fall victim to “compassion fatigue,” which is the physical and mental burnout that accompanies constant exposure to traumatic and stressful situations.

“At the emergency hospital, we often have multiple animals pass away each day. Then we have to deal with the owners, who believe that it’s our fault, and explain that we are just trying our best to help,” Boychick said.

Zehle, of River Cove, is certified in suicide prevention through Northeast Kingdom Human Services. She said that the rate of suicide and depression is high among female vets compared with the rest of the population.

“Vets are forced to compartmentalize feelings of loss when visiting from one client to another,” Zehle said. “Some people just keep pushing and want more and more. It sometimes makes me question why I give so much of myself for people who don’t seem to appreciate it.”

The surge in pandemic-era adoptions has exacerbated instances of hostile owner behavior and exposed veterinary staff to an increase in heartrending interactions with pets, Zehle said. She said she wants to bring the public’s attention to the mental health struggles that shadow this profession.

Everybody should be treated kindly and fairly, she said. 

“I wonder if many of these people would still behave the same way towards us,” she said, “if they had any idea what went on in the back of our hospital.”