As the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world into quarantine and social distancing, many people chose to adopt new furry friends to keep them company. Additionally, people who already owned pets found themselves spending more time than usual with their animals at home, which can be good for the spirit, but also allows more opportunities to notice Fido may not be acting quite like themselves.
As the pandemic continued, pet owners soon learned that getting veterinary care for their animals would be more difficult than ever because of an array of challenges the veterinarian field is facing nationwide, which were only accelerated by the pandemic, according to Homer veterinarians Drs. Jennifer Bando and Christine Marlowe.
Bando, of Homer Veterinary Clinic, explained in a phone interview how the country is currently experiencing a shortage in veterinarians as only 3,000-5,000 graduate veterinarian school and enter the industry each year, as well as a large population of older veterinarians are retiring from the profession. Add in a low income to high student debt ratio, she said, and the problem gets even worse.
“Before COVID began, there was already a national veterinarian and veterinarian support staff shortage,” Bando said. “There are a number of reasons for that: the baby boomers are retiring; it’s a very high stress field; and there is a very high income to school debt ratio as well. There is also really high burnout in the industry, so to top it off, COVID came along, and that really impacted the whole veterinarian industry in a way we weren’t expecting.”
While the shortage of veterinarians and technicians has hindered how many animals they are capable of helping, Bando said the increased adoption rate of animals because of the pandemic have made already tight schedules even more difficult to juggle.
“Since COVID hit, the number and demand of patient care has gone up considerably to the point where we can’t keep up with the requests,” Bando said. “We go into this industry wanting to help people and their pets, and it’s the hardest thing when we can’t actually physically provide that.”
Marlowe, of Emprise Veterinary Services, said while she works with predominantly large animals, she has also seen an increase in patient needs since the pandemic began. Marlowe is a mobile vet, servicing the area between Homer, Sterling and Cooper Landing. Marlowe also provides veterinary services in Seldovia once a month.
“I’ve been really busy and having to turn people away quite a bit,” Marlowe said. “It’s not that I don’t want to see the animal or help the animal — there’s just not enough hours in the day.”
Additionally, Marlowe says since the Kenai Peninsula does not have an animal emergency room, it creates a higher demand for the clinics in the area. Her patients have had to travel to Anchorage to be seen when she couldn’t get to them in time because of this.
“We are certainly experiencing this high demand here in Homer, to the point where we are booking several weeks in advance and are physically unable to see all the pets that require help in any given day,” Bando said. “Many clinics in Anchorage are not taking new clients, and wait times may be hours to get into an emergency clinic. Some clinics are even turning away even sick patients. With longer wait times and difficulty getting appointments, we understand clients’ frustrations, but are doing our best to triage — seeing the most critically ill patients first.”
While the Alaska Mindful Paws animal shelter did not see an increase in adoption rates very much during the pandemic because they were taking in animals on an emergency basis only, they are now seeing an influx of animals, especially kittens, because elective surgeries, such as spay and neuters, were put on hold statewide during the pandemic.
“Throughout the year in 2020, our numbers remained about the same as far as adoptions go,” Jillian Rogers, shelter director, said. “We did see a larger number of kittens. Kitten season usually happens for us around the fall and spring, so we saw a huge number of litters of kittens in the fall time. I think that’s because the vet is so short staffed, and they were closed and then open on such a limited basis that they weren’t doing spays and neuters.”
Alaska Mindful Paws currently has 13 cats up for foster care or adoption, with over half being kittens.
While this crisis continues, Homer veterinarians say they are doing the best they can and are here to help take care of your animals’ medical needs. Through curbside and walk-in emergency appointments, the Homer Veterinary Clinic is serving as many patients as is possible during their hours.
The veterinarians have also hosted vaccine and spay/neuter clinics for those in need of those services. Coming up, Homer Animal Friends is hosting a cat spay and neuter clinic July 28 at the Homer Veterinary Clinic. The clinic is $30. Call 907-235-8960 to schedule an appointment.
“We thought it was really important to let the community know that we’re still here for everyone and that they understand the situation,” Bando said. “We are trying our very best to provide needed care to the pets and community of Homer. By educating our clients, they’ll be better understanding of what’s going on in the industry.”
The Homer Veterinary Clinic currently isn’t taking new patients for wellness exams and routine checkups, but if your pet is experiencing a medical emergency, the clinic will see them if they can. The clinic will begin accepting new patients in September.
Emprise Veterinary Services also is not accepting new small animal clients at this time. Bando and Marlowe encouraged pet owners to seek other veterinary options in Soldotna and Kenai if their pet cannot be seen as quickly as they need through their services.
Additionally, the clinic will soon implement a telehealth program that will allow a licensed veterinarian to provide guidance to pet owners in triaging their pet’s medical needs at home when they cannot get an appointment.
The Homer Veterinary Clinic is located at 326 Woodside Ave. in Homer and is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Alaska Mindful Paws is located at 3575 Heath St. in Homer and is open noon-7 p.m. Tuesday, noon-5 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, and 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Closed Mondays. Emprise Veterinary Services can be reached at 660-342-2095.
For more information, contact the Homer Veterinary Clinic at 907-235-8960 or Alaska Mindful Paws at 907-235-3141.