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Pet owners face long waits, veterinarians deal with burnout as pandemic impact hits ER vet offices

<i>KDKA</i><br/>Pet owners face long waits
Pet owners face long waits

By Amy Wadas

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    PITTSBURGH, PA (KDKA) — Throughout the pandemic, staffing shortages have been a common thing, particularly in the restaurant industry. People may not realize the veterinary field is also experiencing something similar, creating long wait times for pet owners and pushing vets to the point of burnout.

Jennifer Fraser’s new puppy, Simba, was sick with a urinary tract infection when we met her inside Rainbow Veterinary Hospital in Darlington, Beaver County. She said she called multiple emergency vets in the area only to get a response she didn’t expect.

“They all said, basically, unless your pet is dying, they couldn’t see him and would have to call in the morning,” said Fraser.

Thankfully, Rainbow had an open spot available due to a last-minute cancellation, which Dr. Amanda Fultz says is a rarity these days.

“We are booked out of regular appointments right now till the end of November,” said Dr. Fultz.

On top of that, Dr. Fultz says Rainbow’s 24-hour ER is having to turn some of the less severe patients away, or have them wait hours before they can get them in. Dr. Fultz says pet owners could wait up to six hours before their dog or cat is seen in the emergency room.

“We are recommending in those cases for a patient to try and seek out vet care elsewhere,” said Dr. Fultz.

She says people are sometimes being sent as far away as Akron, Ohio, or Morgantown, West Virginia, which Colette Eule says she would have done if she had to after finding a large laceration on her dog Harper’s chest.

“Our initial response was we called her vet where she goes for routine care, explained the situation, and they said they, unfortunately, wouldn’t be able to get her in,” said Eule.

After calling multiple vets within an hour and a half radius of Pittsburgh, Eule found one. She finally got in at Butler Veterinary Associates, and Harper is now healed and healthy.

While a lot of people got pets during the pandemic, Dr. Nicole Palumbo at Butler Veterinary says the main problem comes down to lack of staff, especially in the ER.

“When the pandemic hit, we weren’t allowed to have normal appointments, and that put a huge issue on the future because had all these vaccine appointments and everything were put on the back burner,” said Dr. Palumbo.

While a lot of general practice vets are accepting appointments now, Palumbo says some still have reduced hours and less staff which is causing exhaustion, especially for the vets who work in the ER.

Therefore, Dr. Palumbo is leaving the emergency side of things to focus solely on general practice at a completely different clinic.

“I’m burned out. That’s the biggest thing,” said Dr. Palumbo. “Daily, we get calls that we are probably turning down at least 20-50 people a day and it’s disheartening because you want to help them and people give you horrible reviews.”

Which is why vets say being kind is so important.

“We do see because of the amount of compassion fatigue that’s experienced, the amount of burnout that there’s a high suicide rate,” said Dr. Fultz.

Meanwhile, back inside Rainbow Animal Hospital, Fraser is breathing a sigh of relief that her new puppy Simba is in good hands, and is looking to the future.

“I have a new puppy appointment for him and it’s not until Oct. 16,” said Fraser.

While veterinarians like Dr. Fultz and Dr. Palumbo don’t know what the future holds for the industry, they say the industry is doing what it can to recruit and retain vets with better pay, pushing work-life balance and providing support.

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