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‘We’re feeling the stress of incredible numbers, and it’s affecting people’: Pandemic pets put unexpected strain on veterinary practices

Technician Hilary Blair put a cuff on Fritz to get his blood pressure in the critical care unit as attendant Rae Bowman (left) held him. Fritz had to wait five hours to be tested for a tick-borne illness.
Technician Hilary Blair put a cuff on Fritz to get his blood pressure in the critical care unit as attendant Rae Bowman (left) held him. Fritz had to wait five hours to be tested for a tick-borne illness.John Tlumacki

Carl Rossi of Stoughton paced in the lobby of Angell Animal Medical Center in Jamaica Plain, waiting while his cat was treated by the hospital’s emergency team. Rossi had waited two hours just to get his cat seen by a veterinarian, and now he would have to wait some more.

“I’ve never been here, so I didn’t know what to expect. I can’t make things go quicker,” said Rossi, whose pet had gone missing for five days and somehow developed a jaw that was “out of whack.”

Rossi’s long wait has become the norm at many veterinary hospitals and clinics in Massachusetts, where a massive surge in pet ownership during the pandemic, including first-timers who worry like new parents, has spurred an unprecedented demand for emergency care, as well as backlogs for routine appointments, veterinarians said.

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At Angell, the largest animal hospital in New England, about 10,000 additional visits are expected this year, including an extra 4,000 in emergency services. As a result, waits for emergency care that had averaged less than an hour in 2019 can now last as long as five.

“No one really predicted that this could happen,” said Dr. Kiko Bracker, director of Angell’s emergency services.

Veterinarians are inundated with the volume of pet owners coming in for visits at Angell Animal Medical Center and other clinics.
Veterinarians are inundated with the volume of pet owners coming in for visits at Angell Animal Medical Center and other clinics.John Tlumacki/globe staff

A profession already facing a shortage of veterinarians and technicians is now scrambling to cope. More than 11 million US households took in a new pet during the pandemic as of last September, according to the American Pet Products Association.

“We’re feeling the stress of incredible numbers, and it’s affecting people,” Bracker said of his staff. “It’s shorter tempers, it’s feeling burned out, it’s compassion fatigue, and it’s delivering bad news far too many times. It really wears down on you.”

Jamie Falzone, executive director of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association, said she sees similar concerns across the industry. A survey of members in the organization, which advocates for the profession, showed increased business across the board, she said.

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“I don’t think one person said they’re not up in some way, and most are dramatically up,” Falzone said.

The pandemic kept people close to home, and many who had wanted a pet before COVID now had the time and inclination to follow through. But being at home meant more interaction with pets — many of them living with first-time owners — and familiarity often brought fretting.

Juno, a 14-year-old mix, waited with owner Becca in the lobby at Angell.
Juno, a 14-year-old mix, waited with owner Becca in the lobby at Angell. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“You notice more when you’re sitting at home, and Fluffy is looking at you from the couch. They can’t speak, they can’t tell us how they’re feeling, and we have to interpret,” Falzone said. “Just like with a child, there’s not a guidebook about how to read your animal.”

The backlog in veterinary care is pushing pet owners from small, overwhelmed clinics to larger hospitals with greater capacity.

“We were the last stop, if you will,” said Ames Prentiss, chief executive officer of Ethos Veterinary Health, a national network that does about half of its business in emergency services. “If we didn’t stay open, there were no options for them. If we didn’t work twice as hard and have teams stay two, three, and four hours past their shifts, they would have had nowhere to go.”

Emergency patient volume at the company is up 39 percent this year, Prentiss said, even as the pandemic prompted some significant changes.

Ethos hospitals in Woburn, Lawrence, and Natick began using curbside service in the spring of 2020 to protect clients and staff. Pets were picked up from cars in parking spaces and brought into the clinic for checkups and treatment.

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Technician Hilary Blair got a lick from Fritz as attendant Rae Bowman (left) held him.
Technician Hilary Blair got a lick from Fritz as attendant Rae Bowman (left) held him.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

All three hospitals will have returned to business as usual by next week, Prentiss said. While necessary during the pandemic, the curbside approach had its drawbacks.

“There’s really a lot lost when you can’t have face-to-face interactions with the pet owner,” Prentiss said. “That made it challenging for our teams to communicate as effectively as we would like.”

At Angell, the demands became so pronounced that the hospital transferred emergency staff to Jamaica Plain from a satellite office in Waltham.

Dr. Virginia Sinnott-Stutzman, an emergency and critical-care specialist at Angell, said with a half-smile that she’s sometimes reminded of the overcrowded emergency departments shown in television dramas.

Carl Rossi waited two hours in the waiting area at Angell to have his cat, Max, looked at after Max escaped for five days and came back with a possible broken jaw.
Carl Rossi waited two hours in the waiting area at Angell to have his cat, Max, looked at after Max escaped for five days and came back with a possible broken jaw. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“It kind of feels like that,” Sinnott-Stutzman said. Many people have waited for hours and left without being seen, she added.

To help reduce waiting, Angell’s 24-hour call center not only warns pet owners about the expected wait time, but plans to add staff to help people determine whether a trip to the emergency room is necessary, said Rob Halpin, spokesman for MSPCA-Angell.

“They’re running as fast as they can to deal with these cases,” said Bracker, the emergency services director. “Hopefully, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Bracker also has become reacquainted with pet ownership. In his office sat Rosie, a 7-month-old golden retriever that the veterinarian brought home in February.

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“If you’ve never had a pet, it’s hard to [predict] the amount of work you’re in for,” Bracker said.

Down the hall, Bracker checked the eyes and teeth on Fritz, a large goldendoodle whose sore joints indicated he might have Lyme disease. It had taken Fritz four hours to get to this table, where assistant Rae Bowman gently steadied his head as technician Hilary Blair took his blood pressure.

“Despite increasing our staff, it’s still backed up,” Blair said.

Prentiss, of Ethos Veterinary Health, said he believes the demand for pets will remain high as the pandemic continues to fade.

“I don’t think it’s going to change anytime soon. I don’t see it going backward. I think people are just more attuned to their pets,” Prentiss said. “What we have to do is adapt our processes and our systems to handle the volume.”

Janet Kalin of South Natick understands that connection. She had waited at Angell for 2½ hours before Lola, a 12-year-old miniature schnauzer, could be checked for bladder stones.

“Every clinic is trying to do a good job. They are just overwhelmed,” Kalin said, pausing in the sweltering heat beside the hospital’s parking lot.

Owning a pet brings obligations with its benefits, and sometimes inconveniences, too.

“When you adopt an animal, it’s a real commitment for care,” Kalin said. “These are your children.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.