You may find you and your pet can’t get in to see the vet for days—or even weeks—after you call. Here’s why.

By Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, RBT
September 25, 2020
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If you have tried to make a vet appointment for your pet lately, you may have found that there are unusually long wait times, sometimes stretching weeks out. This can cause you a lot more stress when you’re already worried about why your dog has been itching all night or why your cat is refusing to use the litter box. If your veterinarian isn’t allowing in-person visits just yet you may also be feeling more anxious about how to even get access to quality care.

Your local veterinarian isn’t trying to add more stress to already stressful times. Your vet’s office is very likely feeling the hard effects of the pandemic much more than you think. With the need to keep not only their staff and clients safe from COVID-19 but also the pets they serve, vets are dealing with myriad issues, including the rising number of veterinary appointment requests and the need to offer services in a totally new way. “The veterinary community is universally doing the best they can under the circumstances and any expression of understanding goes a long way,” says Christopher Pachel, DVM, DACVB, CABC, a veterinary behaviorist at the Animal Behavior Clinic in Portland, Ore.

So, what’s causing such long wait times? Why are veterinary clinics and hospitals swamped? We look at the five main reasons why you should expect, and respect, delays at your local vet office.

1. More people have adopted pets, and those pets need veterinary care, too.

Rescues and shelters alike have seen a significant rise in adoption rates. What began in March as a slight increase in adoptions and fostering has turned into a literal pet buying and adopting frenzy, and “Clear the Shelter”events have resulted in some rescues being totally empty. And all those pets need to be seen by a veterinarian for wellness checks and updates to vaccines, which causes veterinarians to become overwhelmed by new client appointment requests.

 2. Veterinarians are following safety protocols that take up time and money.

To keep staff and clients safe, veterinarians are employing the same safety protocols that you may see at any medical office. That might mean that they are reducing the number of staff on site, using separate doorways, and/or moving all appointments to curbside. Veterinary offices are uniquely designed, so this means infection control procedures recommended by the CDC may be different than what’s needed at other business locations. For instance, many vet offices have implemented curbside pickup and dropoff, to reduce the number of people in the office. And your vet office may be implementing those extra steps while they have fewer staff members on hand. This adds time, and may reduce the overall number of appointments available in a given day.

3. Emergency appointments need to be prioritized. 

Although regular wellness checks and staying up-to-date on vaccines is important, veterinarians have to prioritize appointments. Emergency needs, where a pet is in immediate danger, are going to be considered before a pet that just has itchy skin or needs a vaccine. For example, the AAHA and BluePearl announced a shocking 70% increase in the number of canine parvovirus cases being seen in emergency veterinary clinics during the pandemic. The virus is highly infectious and can be fatal. This increase may be due to the increased rates of adoptions combined with pet owners spending more time outdoors in the warmer months. More outdoor activities with our pets leads to common summer emergencies for pets, too.  

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4. If staff gets sick, there may be no one to fill in.

Most clinics maintain a very small number of full-time staff members. If one of those regular staff members becomes sick with COVID-19, in accordance with the CDC, any other staff member that came into contact with them should quarantine for 14 days. This could mean that in a small clinic, most, if not all, of the full-time staff could be quarantined anytime someone has been exposed. Without those crucial individuals, the location may be only able to offer very limited services for an extended period of time, reducing the number of clients they can see.

5. People working from home are noticing their pet’s acute issues.

More people are working from home now and getting to spend the day around their pets. This means that issues that may have gone unseen before suddenly become more noticeable. “Clients are spending significantly more time with their pets and therefore are more likely to notice acute or even chronic issues that may have otherwise been undetected, “ Pachel says. This then leads to pet parents wanting appointments for ailments that otherwise may have been ignored.

How Can You Help To Reduce the Stress on Your Vet Team?

Every pet owner can do things to help support their veterinary team. Whether you just purchased a “pandemic puppy” or you have a pet that has been a regular at the local clinic for years, doing what you can to reduce calls to the vet is a great way to show your appreciation (and ensure your pet remains healthy!). 

  • Stay up to date on your pet’s monthly meds. Preventative measures, like giving your dog their monthly dose of flea, tick, and heartworm preventatives on time, goes a long way in reducing stress and pressure at the vet.
  • Don’t introduce new foods into your pet’s diet right now. Although we’re all getting a little stir crazy and wanting to be adventurous, now is not the time to try out new food trends or change your dog’s diet. Keep their weight, nutrition, and food routines consistent to prevent digestive issues that become costly, and time consuming, at the vet.
  • You don’t need your vet for basic grooming needs. Nail trims, ear cleaning, and de-matting are a common reason pet parents make a quick visit to the vet. However, these things are not considered essential appointments right now, and you can tackle them at home with a little support and motivation. Here’s a helpful article on cat nail trims and you can always contact a reputable groomer to help you with your pet’s fur.
  • Keep your dog mentally and physically active. All pets need access to enrichment that engages both their body and mind. A pet that doesn’t get access to quality enrichment on a daily basis is more likely to experience physical ailments and exhibit behavioral problems. Check out this helpful and interesting study on types of enrichment.
  • Plan ahead. Don’t skip your pet’s annual wellness checkups and vaccinations, but do plan ahead and call for an appointment about a month earlier than you normally would. Keep your veterinarian’s number in your phone but also consider adding the contact information for another option for a general practice vet as well as a local emergency vet. If an emergency need does arise, call your veterinarian first to make sure they can get your pet in quickly. 
  • Know your pet’s needs. “Perhaps the most universal recommendation is for pet owners to recognize and communicate their individual pet's needs as a form of advocacy so that the veterinary team is better equipped to navigate within or around those parameters,” Pachel says. If you know your cat doesn’t like to be handled, or your dog tends to be scared during vet appointments, those things need to be communicated to the vet team before you drop your pet off for an appointment.
  • Consider telehealth appointments.  For veterinary care needs that are not dire, consider telehealth appointments. These can often be done with veterinarians that are not even located in your area. Being willing to utilize telehealth appointments helps to reduce stress on your pet (and you!) and keeps more in-person appointments open for those emergency cases.

Veterinarians and their staff are working hard to ensure your furry family member remains healthy—even as the pandemic keeps changing the game rules. Your veterinarian needs your patience and understanding as they navigate the caring for our beloved pets.