Dr. Lindsey Candey stroked the long fur of Oscar 5.0 Monday afternoon at Magrane Pet Medical Center in Mishawaka.
A white and spotted tan rescue cat that recently was brought into the veterinary practice, Oscar now hangs around the office as a “clinic cat” while he waits to be adopted.
For Candey, petting him provided a moment’s pause before returning to her next appointment, one of an endless stream of checkups, surgeries and procedures Magrane has performed in the last year.
“It’s been stressful,” she said. “The team has been handling it as best as we can.”
Local veterinary practices are struggling to keep up with the high demand for veterinary care, as they have since last summer. The demand is attributed to the number of pets acquired during the pandemic, but even more so to the increased number of sick pets, as well as a nationwide shortage of veterinarians.
Many new and old pet owners forwent regular checkups for their animals during the pandemic, and as a result, preliminary indicators of more serious conditions went untreated for several months. Now, many of these medical issues have become serious or even fatal.
“That’s causing huge strains on the system,” Magrane and Ireland Animal Clinic veterinarian Dr. Kathleen Neuhoff said. “I would say emergencies have increased by 50%.”
Neuhoff estimated the overall number of patients has grown 10%, which accounts for pets acquired during the pandemic.
As of Monday, South Bend’s Animal Resource Center, one of several adoption agencies in the area, has adopted out 126 animals this year since January, according to shelter manager Lindsey Cuellar. From January 2020 to June 2020, the shelter adopted out 169 animals, a little over 40 more adoptions in the same time period. In 2018 and 2019 each, it adopted out 250 animals.
“That’s probably what the normal was before the pandemic,” Cuellar said. Once the pandemic hit, she thinks, the numbers went down because of the financial stress many people experienced then.
These new pets, in addition to Magrane’s regular clients, are now in need of care, either because their owners working from home had more time to notice issues with their pets or the pets are now sick with a preventable health issue that went undetected, Candey said.
During a regular checkup, the clinic might find and treat a smaller issue such as gingivitis, but undetected, the issue escalates into an emergency within a few months.
Another example, Neuhoff said, would be catching a growth on the skin of a pet during a preliminary care visit. “Now what would be a routine surgery is chemotherapy,” she said.
Additionally, most local pet clinics are still operating in a curbside pick-up style, a system that backs up appointment availability. Neuhoff estimated her practices have cut their daily capacity by 50%.
The need does not stop, however. “It will end, but it’s not going to be soon,” Neuhoff said.
She predicted preliminary care such as checkups will take a year or two to return to normal.
Although her practices have extended their hours, they are still juggling the demand. Ireland Animal Clinic in South Bend serves as a wellness clinic, while Magrane offers care for more serious issues.
Both, however, are overburdened. Neuhoff said she recently had to treat a fracture at the Ireland Animal Clinic because both Magrane and emergency rooms as far as Westville could not take the animal.
Valerie Wurn, of Osceloa, brought in her cat Sadie to Magrane on Monday for a regular check-up. Sadie, 15, has a heart condition that began right at the beginning of the pandemic.
While holding Sadie — who received all A’s during her checkup — in the parking lot, Wurn said she was grateful to Magrane for quickly transitioning to its current curbside pick up system a year ago and for continuing to provide veterinary care for Sadie.
“I had several friends who lost pets during the pandemic because they were closed or weren’t able to accommodate them,” Wurn said.
A veterinarian shortage
Another contributing factor to the swamped clinics is the national shortage of veterinarians. As of 2019, there were only 89,200 veterinarians in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Animal clinics throughout the area are looking to hire technicians and veterinarians, Neuhoff said; however, there are not enough new veterinary graduates to fill the market.
Additionally, the never-ending demand for veterinary need is taking a toll on the human caregivers. “We are burning people out in our practice,” Neuhoff said.
The veterinary field is notoriously straining. A 2018 CDC study found female veterinarians were 3.5 times as likely, and male veterinarians were 2.1 times as likely, to die from suicide as the general population.
The constant euthanizing of pets, an increasing educational debt-to-income ratio, long hours and the relentless demand for care are all contributors to high levels of mental health issues in the field.
Dr. Kent Morton, a veterinarian at Kryder Veterinary Clinic in Granger, said many veterinarians around the country quit the field in the last year because of the overwhelming demand.
Kryder has likewise seen an influx in veterinary need for about a year now, and Morton doesn’t expect the need to slow down. “It seems to be a problem nationwide,” he said.
After the pandemic began in 2020, 12.6 million American households adopted a new pet, according to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), a national trade and research organization that also recently reported the national pet industry exceeded more than $100 billion in annual sales in 2020.
Katie Chamberlin, the practice manager at Morris Animal Hospital in Granger, said, “We started to see an increase in appointments after the stay at home orders. It was the perfect time for people to get pets.”
Many families and individuals acquired pets during the pandemic because the time at home provided them with the ability to take care of a pet during the work day, Chamberlin said, but also because of the psychological support a pet can provide.
“I certainly think there’s something to be said about the emotional support aspect of a pet, especially if you live alone,” she said.
She added adoptions were fairly equal between cats and dogs.
Most Americans are keeping their pandemic pets despite national reports that households were returning their newly adopted animals. Chamberlin concurred that in her experience, she has not seen many cases of households returning their pandemic pets.
Pre-pandemic, the Morris Animal Hospital could see patients within a few days of scheduling. Now, an appointment needs to be made about six weeks out, and the practice will see upwards of 50 patients a day.
Preventative Pet Health of Michiana, which opened its doors in the Commerce Center of downtown South Bend in April, was started to relieve local veterinary practices and help abate the local overwhelming need for veterinary care.
Co-founder and CEO Carolyn Trancoso said she and her colleagues heard of cases where pets had to be euthanized due to overwhelmed veterinary systems.
“That’s the biggest thing people tell us, is that they haven’t been able to get into their regular vets,” she said.
Preventative Pet Health was then born to offer affordable pet care against preventable diseases and offers vaccinations, parasite and pest control, testing, and ears, eyes and skin care. Trancoso said regular wellness exams with a veterinarian are still recommended, and the group does not take care of emergencies.
“Our goal is not to replace a full-service vet clinic,” she explained.
Candey said she was happy to see more households adopting pets, but she recommended pet owners continue to be proactive about their pet’s health.
“We are always going to be playing catch up at this state,” she said.