The crush of new business during COVID-19 made for a busy year at Oz Animal Hospital in Lincoln Park, where owner Dr. Tracey Maione also worked as a veterinarian. The hospital was double booked most days, and requests for appointments had tripled.
Maione was pregnant, however, and looked forward to the respite of a two-month maternity leave. She gave birth at the start of March, but by the end of the month — facing a combination of an overbooked schedule and a lack of available veterinarians to cover shifts — she made the hard decision to cut her leave in half and headed back to the office.
“I never would have anticipated I would have ever done that,” she said, “but it was so necessary.”
Animal hospitals and clinics have seen an extraordinary amount of business since the pandemic, and the last few months have been the busiest they’ve ever been, according to many Chicago-area veterinarians. Some clinics estimate they are up to 75% busier than they were before the pandemic.
That, in turn, has caused a logjam for animal owners, who are reporting in some cases long wait times for both emergency and wellness visits for their pets.
It’s been well documented that one way many Americans coped with the pandemic was by adopting a furry friend. But the combination of an abnormally large number of adoptions and more owners being home with their pets every day and noticing routine health issues has meant a flood of people trying to make appointments at veterinary clinics and hospitals.
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Dr. Veronica Balser, a veterinarian and medical director at Metropolitan Veterinary Clinic in the South Loop, said her hospital is about 25% busier than normal — and that’s after the clinic set limits on the number of appointments.
“It makes sense that people were like, ‘Oh, I’m stuck at home, this is a great time to get a puppy. Because I’ll have all kinds of time to train them and to spend time with them,’” Balser said.
The increase in business wasn’t just from new pets, though. Balser said pet owners tended to make more appointments than normal because they were home so much more during COVID-19 and noticed smaller things in their pets they wanted to get checked out.
Plus, patients who put off well visits during the pandemic were trying to catch up with routine checkups as restrictions were relaxed.
“Before the pandemic, you could call us and get an appointment within, like, one to three days,” Balser said.
Now, her clinic is booked a month in advance, an estimate on par with other clinics, according to staff members the Tribune interviewed.
‘She could be there all day’
Dalit Troyce, who adopted her Labrador puppy Renata during the pandemic, didn’t have any problem making same-week appointments until recently.
“I called Banfield Gold Coast two weeks ago because my puppy was having issues walking, and all appointments online were booked through September,” Troyce said.
She tried other Banfield locations, and they, too, were booked up. She called the original clinic back.
“I said it was kind of an emergency because my dog couldn’t walk and the closest they could potentially see us was for another two weeks, and it wouldn’t even be a full appointment,” Troyce said.
She was able to secure a drop-off appointment for Renata, meaning a veterinarian would find time between appointments to squeeze in a quick checkup.
Renata ended up staying at the clinic from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. without Troyce, two weeks after she first requested an appointment.
“It was really frustrating in that moment,” she said.
‘I cannot find employees to fit almost any role in this clinic’
Maione said to complicate matters, clinics are struggling to hire new veterinarians and other staff members.
“There was a little bit of a shortage going into the pandemic where it was really hard to find a doctor. But it became dire during the pandemic,” she said. “So what happened was we just had to start booking out appointments further and further.”
Maione’s hospital is booked out about one month for appointments and for surgeries. It receives about 40 calls a day requesting to be seen that day.
Dr. Linda Kopija, president of the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association and the owner of Hobson Valley Animal Clinic in Woodridge, said she also struggled to staff her clinic.
“I cannot find employees to fit almost any role in this clinic. I have colleagues that are experiencing the same thing in different parts of the country,” she said. “The need for veterinary care has been growing on its own. But it is definitely the pandemic that caused a huge surge in the need for care. And it also caused everything to take a lot longer.”
The increased workload has worn on many in the field. Local veterinarians report routinely working 10- to 12-hour days.
Clinics reported that clients have been frustrated by the wait times for appointments and emergency visits. While some clients are understanding, some take their frustrations out on staff, Maione said. Her receptionists and care coordinators are feeling the brunt of clients’ anger, dealing with “yelling and swearing” at times.
“There’s a very high rate of burnout,” she said. “We’ve had staff have meltdowns — we’ve had to coach staff that are crying, just from interactions with clients.”
The new cost of an emergency
While some pet owners can wait for their animal to be examined, others are turning to emergency animal hospitals for care.
Michelle Anh moved to Chicago in mid-May with her 3-year-old mini poodle rescue, Byul. When Byul got food poisoning in June, she called about six clinics, and most told her they couldn’t see Byul until the middle of July, or even August.
“One veterinary receptionist even told me to try calling vets in the suburbs because the vets were booked all over Chicago,” Anh said.
She ended up taking Byul to an emergency vet for antibiotics, racking up a $400 price tag. Anh said a visit to a regular clinic in the past has run her about $160.
“I really didn’t want to take her to the emergency vet because there’s no point in paying $400 for such an easily treatable issue,” she said. But after seeing Byul in so much pain, Anh felt the only option was the emergency room.
“It breaks your heart, especially if you have a rescue like mine who has been through so much already,” she said. “I just want to make her life as easy as possible.”
It’s not only a city issue. Kopija’s clinic in the suburbs sometimes has to recommend owners go to an ER because her office is too booked. But even the emergency clinics are experiencing long wait times.
“If we send them to the emergency room, I honestly feel guilty for everybody involved,” Kopija said. “Because at emergency rooms, at times it’s a three- to seven-hour wait.”
“There’s not one ER that pets can walk in and be (immediately) seen unless they are dying,” Maione said.
‘I’m just worried about our field’
Booked clinics and hospitals report that the pace doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
“I’m just worried about our field,” Maione said. “I think we need to produce more doctors going into general practice. And we need to have a better way of managing our stress levels.”
Megan Murray, an associate vet at March Animal Hospital in Arlington Heights, said the workload will likely not change soon because pets that were adopted during the pandemic will require care for years to come.
For now, veterinarians and staff have to work at “110%, constantly,” she said.
Maione predicts that the cost of veterinary care will go up in the future.
“One thing I see coming is I think the cost of veterinary care is going to be going up. Because a lot of people are leaving the field because they’re not making enough money,” she said.
There is hope for drawing new veterinarians to the field.
While Colleen Lewis, president of Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association, said staffing shortages are a major concern, she cited data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics as hope for the future. It predicts that employment of veterinarians and technicians will grow 16% nationally from 2019 to 2029, which is much faster than average.
One aspect of the work Lewis is thankful is coming back to normal is the relationship between pet owners and their veterinarian.
“There are many facets to the veterinary profession, but one of the biggies is socializing,” she said. “The pandemic has limited our ability to simply talk to a client about their interactions with their pet.”
Some clinics, like Maione’s, report using telemedicine, or video calls, to see more patients at a fraction of the cost, to help with the number of clients requesting appointments.
To offset the potential rising cost of care and emergency visits, Murray recommends clients get pet insurance.
Going forward, Balser recommends clients “do what they can” to avoid being in a difficult situation with their pet. She advised owners to call days ahead for prescription refills and to call a couple of weeks before a routine appointment to ensure everything is ready and to “help (them) help you.” Lewis advises scheduling routine vaccine appointments well in advance.
“Pets are family,” Balser said. “And it is teamwork, between the pet owners and the veterinary facility, that makes the dream of a happy and healthy pet work.”
48 Olympic athletes with Illinois ties
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Alyssa Naeher, United States, soccer
Andrea Filler, Italy, soccer
Casey Krueger, United States, soccer
Darryl Sullivan, United States: High jump
David Kendziera, United States: 400-meter hurdles
David Robertson, United States, baseball
DeAnna Price, United States: Hammer
Eddy Alvarez, United States, baseball
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Eliza Stone, United States: Saber
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Gwen Berry, United States: Hammer
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Jordan Wilimovsky, United States: 10-kilometer
Jordyn Poulter, United States, volleyball
Josh Zeid, Israel, baseball
Julie Ertz, United States, soccer
Kelsey Card, United States: Discus
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Kevin McDowell, United States
Laura Zeng, United States, rhythmic gymnastics
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North Shore Rhythmic Gymnastics team, United States: Rhythmic gymnastics team competition
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Sandi Morris, United States: Pole vault
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Thomas Jaeschke, United States, volleyball
Thomas Pieters, Belgium, golf
Tierna Davidson, United States, soccer
Tim Federowicz, United States, baseball
Tim Nedow, Canada: Shot put
Tomáš Satoranský, Czech Republic, men’s basketball team
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Veterinary assistant Marisa Canez, from left, and veterinary technician Jalysa Perez examine cat Nemo as veterinary technician Alex Perez carries off Bi'Cu during a busy morning July 20, 2021, at Metropolitan Veterinary Center in Chicago.