I-TEAM: Local veterinarians, pets feel strain of staff shortage

Published: Nov. 29, 2021 at 7:52 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Veterinary practices across the two-state are short-staffed, and many doctors and their patients are feeling it. The I-Team found it’s a problem nationally with the profession.

Burnout is a key factor here. A recent study by a veterinary medical association found “turnover for veterinarians is twice as high as it is for physicians in medical practice.”

Senior Investigative Reporter Liz Owens found that’s amplified here at home where across Georgia and South Carolina – there is only one veterinary college.

“We love adopting,” said Bob Simpkins.

Simpkins is as a loyal adopting his pets from local shelters as his dogs have been back to him throughout his lifetime. His latest little lady is Lola.

“Our vet let us know because they are really busy there are a lot of adoptions, a lot of animals, that I would not be able to see them until January,” he said.

Surprising, since he called in November and even as a loyal client with a new dog, it was still a two-month wait.

“I really wanted the same vet that I’ve always had for my animals because I trust them. There is a bond that is made. And I really like that bond,” said Simpkins.

Instead, he brought his new dog to the Aiken County Animal Shelter for an evaluation.

“This year has been a very busy year for us,” said Bobby Arthurs.

Arthurs is Aiken County’s chief enforcement officer and shelter manager. He says the main COVID impact they’ve seen is from people evicted who can’t take their pets with them.

“With our high intake we are getting more intake than we are with animals leaving the shelter we are getting very few adoptions right now,” he said.

And that he says is a very layered problem – beyond just having enough space.

“It has been a huge burden on our vet to be able to fix so many animals coming in it’s really more she can do,” said Arthurs.

Across the river, the I-Team found more of the same squeeze.

Stephanie Fain is the practice manager for Care More Animal Hospital in Martinez, Ga.

“What kind of increase have you seen? Percentage-wise if you could take a guess?” said Liz Owens.

“Oh I mean honestly like 100 percent,” said Fain.

The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association published a recent study titled Are we in a veterinary workforce crisis? Finding “many ... in the veterinary profession are still reeling, professionally and personally, from the pandemic’s effects on our practices, patients, and clients. Stress continues to run high, and our teams are feeling overworked and overwhelmed.”

But most interestingly, the authors didn’t find an overwhelming increase in pet adoptions from shelters in the pandemic fueling the crunch. In fact, 2020 saw the fewest numbers of adoptions in five years.

What they did find is “clients were spending more time at home with their pets, which gave them the opportunity to spot health issues more readily. … Many also had more disposable income from stimulus payments and reduced spending in other areas – that they could now allocate to pet care.”

Data also showed “the pandemic hurt practice productivity” due to COVID protocols – so vets are seeing fewer pets per hour due to sanitation or even virtual or parking lot appointments.

Fain tells the I-Team they’ve also seen both of those trends and they’ve felt another they are trying to ward off – burnout.

“We just had a post today where we saw people complaining we don’t have an ER here because the vets don’t care enough well that’s not the issue. They’re humans they have to eat, they have to sleep, they have to see their families so they can’t work 24 hours a day,” said Fain.

That same study found “the average turnover for veterinarians is twice as high as it is for physicians in medical practice. And veterinary technicians have one of the highest turnovers of all health care positions compared.”

“There are vets in the area … even more techs that just have to get out of the field because of the way they’ve been disrespected. People don’t appreciate the effort and time they are putting in forth so they end up moving to a different career even though that’s what they put their entire lives into,” she said.

The I-Team scrolled local job listings and found plenty of openings – some veterinary technician positions are even offering signing bonuses in the CSRA.

In the meantime, Care More Animal Hospital is asking for your pet owners to call to set appointments far in advance as much as possible.

“It’s sad when we just can’t see people,” said Fain.

And they are also asking for your patience.

“If we didn’t love the industry we wouldn’t be here. It’s not that we don’t care about your pets we are just doing the best we can,” she said.

So what can be done? On top of recruitment (based on UGA numbers), veterinary practices are sounding the alarm now. If you are planning to get a pet for the holidays call and make your appointments now for January – even if you don’t have your pet in hand yet. It really will ensure you make the schedule.

Aiken County’s animal shelter would encourage you to consider adopting. They are adopting dogs for $35 and cats for only $10 right now.

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