Veterinary hospitals overwhelmed by demand and COVID-19 factors

BOSTON — We’ve been reporting on the shortage of all kinds of workers because of the pandemic, and that, combined with several other pandemic-related factors, is causing a crisis at animal hospitals all over the state.

Efficiency is also down at veterinary hospitals because of COVID safety measures, while demand is up.

Sarah Henken and Darrah O’Connor of Medfield told Boston 25 News they called around to at least half a dozen animal hospitals looking for help for their Clumber Spaniel, Peter, who has Sarcoma in his jaw. The life-or-death surgery he needed to remove the cancer and try to stop it from spreading, almost didn’t happen.

“We called a lot of places trying to get in and no one was going to be able to see us for months and months and months even on an emergency basis,” said Henken.

Most hospitals were only able to offer Peter surgery spots 3 to 6 months out.

“He didn’t have 6 months,” said Henken. “It was really quite dire, bad news. And the type of cancer that he had was quite aggressive.”

Eventually, a hospital in Waltham “shoehorned” Peter in for surgery, Henken said.

At The Foster Hospital for Small Animals in Grafton, which did not treat Peter, the Dean of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine (which runs the hospital) told Boston 25 News they’ve had to turn away non-urgent cases.

The hospital is also seeing more pets due to a pandemic pet explosion; those pets are coming into the hospital sicker because primary care vets are also backed up.

“Our cages may all be filled. So it varies, but we’ve been turning away 400 to 500 cases a month that we can’t see. But we don’t turn away the true emergencies that have to be seen. We try really hard not to turn away any pet that needs care now,” said the Dean, Dr. Alastair Cribb.

Dr. Cribb said the problem isn’t limited to Massachusetts: it is nationwide. He also said it’s not just stressful on pet owners; it’s stressful on vets, vet techs and hospital staff, too.

“It has been very difficult,” said Dr. Cribb. “Vets go into veterinary medicine because we want to care for animals. So anytime we feel that we’re not providing the most prompt care for an animal, it causes us concern and that is an added stress every day.”

Dr. Cribb says a shortage of vet techs that started before the pandemic, is even worse now.

Plus, efficiency at animal hospitals is down by as much as 25% because of COVID safety measures.

Dr. Cribb’s best advice to families is first to phone ahead, so a vet knows the situation, and can tell you if your pet will be seen.

You can try to call around to several hospitals like Peter’s owners did. And look for signs that your pet might be experiencing a true emergency, like if your pet can’t get up or is not responding.

Dr. Cribb says you can also avoid urgent situations by maintaining your pet’s health and keeping up with vaccinations and primary care vet appointments.

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