Veterinarians face increased caseload, struggling workforce: ‘That’s really impacted our ability to care for patients’

Veterinarians express concern about being left out of vaccine eligibility

MADISON, Wis. – As our pets help us through hard times, a pandemic won’t stop veterinarians like Dr. Kai Shiu from helping them.

“Our companion animals provide comfort, companionship,” Shiu said. “They’re certainly helping families experiencing loneliness as well as mental health issues.”

Shiu is an oncologist at VCA Veterinary Emergency Service & Veterinary Specialty Center in Middleton. That’s where he regularly sees Fred – a dog whose assistance goes beyond his closest companion, Sgt. Drew Severson with the Janesville Police Department.

“He’s keeping the community safe. We’re doing our best to keep Fred comfortable,” Shiu said.

Along with bad guys, K-9 Fred is fighting cancer. Without his oncology appointments, Severson said, “I’d probably be without my partner.”

That’s a thought most pet owners don’t want to imagine.

Toll on emergency clinics

“Unfortunately, emergency clinics have really seen a huge increase in wait times,” Shiu said. “It can range from an hour if you’re lucky to over five hours. We’ve also had weekends where two of the three emergency facilities (in the area) are closed because of staffing or caseload.”

He said that puts pressure on staff, an already burdened workforce, with high suicide rates compared to other professions. At the same time, the pandemic has brought rise to record pet adoptions.

“So we’ve got this high increase in demand of caseload as well as a struggling workforce, and that’s really impacted our ability to care for patients,” Shiu said. “We’ve got mental health issues. We’ve got record adoptions. We’ve got huge amounts of people who are just relying on their pets to get through their day.”

More preventative care cases are getting shifted to urgent care facilities, meaning diseases get diagnosed later on.

General care clinics face high demands

The goal at WisCARES, an extension clinic of the University of Wisconsin veterinary teaching medical hospital, offers subsidized care for the pets of people experiencing homelessness or financial constraints.

“We do feel we can keep families together, including animals,” said Dr. Kelly Schultz, the medical director at WisCARES.

Schultz said the case load is up, and they’re working to fit everyone in as soon as possible.

“It’s been really hard, I would say. Most days we turn people away,” Schultz said. “Due to COVID job loss, loss of revenue, increased hardships, a lot more people qualify for our services than would have in the past.”

“Right now, the vet industry in general is busy,” said Dr. Meghan Schuh, veterinarian and co-owner of Precision Veterinary on Madison’s west side.

The low-cost clinic has had to stop accepting new patients for their spay and neuter services because they’re unable to bring in large groups of people at once to go over required medical information.

“It leaves us feeling helpless when we can’t help when a call comes in, especially when they say, ‘I’ve tried everywhere else,’” Schuh said. “It’s a tough situation to be in. We’re in a field where burnout is already so high.”

They’re continuing wellness services with the precautions they’re able take.

“This isn’t the sort of job you can do remotely – not even close,” co-owner George Staruch said.

Concern about vaccine ‘oversight’

Staruch said vaccinations would make a world of difference for veterinary care in general, preventing potentially devastating hospital closures from staff needing to quarantine.

“(That’s a) massive increase in demand, massive crash in supply,” Staruch said. “Now you’ve created a huge problem where somebody dies when they don’t need to.”

WisCARES was forced to close for a day or two, Schultz said, because of COVID cases.

Though a state committee of experts discussed the possibility of including veterinarians in their recommendations for the next Phase 1B of vaccination in Wisconsin, they didn’t make the cut.

Shiu said there’s concern among the veterinary committee that there’s been an oversight of the role veterinarians play in the community.

“From the perspective of public health, we’re at the frontline every day looking at pets that could very well have the next emerging virus,” Shiu said. “We already know SARS came from animals, and it’s a mutating virus. We know it has the ability to infect dogs and cats at this point, but very poor and replicating in those pets, but that could change.”

He said the vaccine would go a long way in helping veterinary staff continue to keep pets healthy.

“The community needs us more so than ever,” he said.

Especially with increased demand, WisCARES relies on donors to continue offering subsidized care. More information on how to help can be found here.