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Northeast Ohio pet owners are experiencing long wait times for veterinary appointments. Here's why

Bella the cat had a urinary tract infection. Her owner, Olivia Houck, had trouble finding an appointment for her to be treated. [Olivia Houck]
Bella the cat had a urinary tract infection. Her owner, Olivia Houck, had trouble finding an appointment for her to be treated. [Olivia Houck]

A few months ago, Olivia Houck noticed her cat, Bella, was having trouble urinating. That's usually a sign of a urinary tract infection, but it could also be something more serious, like kidney stones or blockages.

"For cats, that can be a pretty major thing, and usually by the time they're showing symptoms, sometimes it's pretty bad," Houck said.

Houck wasn't able to get an appointment at her regular vet. After calling around to other clinics, she finally got Bella in at an animal hospital about 20-30 minutes from her house.

"So she did have a pretty major UTI," Houck said. 

Bella got the antibiotics she needed, but Houck had trouble trying to find a vet for a two week checkup appointment. 

"It feels like almost every time I'm trying to get them in for something, it's a long wait," she said.  

Houck finally got an appointment at Lakewood Animal Hospital, and Bella did need an extra round of antibiotics to take care of her UTI.

Now, she's waiting for another appointment after hers was canceled last month, after a three month wait, because two veterinarians were out sick with COVID-19. 

"Overall it's really frustrating, but at the same time I feel for the vet's offices because they would love to get her in to see her," Houck said. 

Houck isn't alone. Pet owners across Northeast Ohio and the country are finding it difficult to get treatment for their furry family members.

Olivia Houck poses for a picture with her other pet, Juno, who she adopted at the beginning of the pandemic when she knew she'd have time at home with her new dog. [Courtesy of Olivia Houck]

One of the reasons for the delays is extra COVID-19 protocols like curbside service, said veterinarian Dr. Anna van Heeckeren, founder of the Cleveland nonprofit One Health Organization.

Many clinics no longer allow people inside the building and instead have them wait in their cars.

“That takes extra time for the clinics to come and pick up your pet from the car or somehow transfer the pet to the clinic," she said.

Extra cleaning between patients also increases wait times.  

The shorter supply of appointments is coming at a time of increased demand, as more people have adopted pandemic pets and are working from home, noticing issues with their animals, van Heeckeren said.

Newly acquired pets increased animal medical office visits by more than 50%, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

At the same time appointments are increasing, veterinarians were seeing fewer patients per hour because of the extra COVID-19 protocols. Average productivity declined by almost 25% in 2020, compared with 2019, according to data from the AVMA Census of Veterinarians and Veterinary Practice Owners.

Staffing shortages are an issue too. That's partially due to people who are out sick with COVID-19, but also because people are burned out and leaving the industry, said Lakewood Animal Hospital veterinarian Dr. Conni Curren.

"A lot of our people were working open to close, and that's really—for our animal care assistants and our technicians—7:30 in the morning til 8 at night, and that can get pretty brutal," Curren said.

This was a problem even before the pandemic, Curren said, with only about 30 colleges that can offer a degree in veterinary medicine.  

Many veterinarians are calling this "the perfect storm." There aren't enough people trained to fill open jobs. The people who are working at vet clinics are working long hours and leaving the industry due to burnout, or are having to stay home because they are sick with COVID-19.

And customers are needing more appointments. 

The average number of appointments booked increased 4.5% from 2019 to 2020. Appointments increased 6.5% between January and June 2021, compared with the same period in 2020, according to national data on more than 4,000 veterinary practices from analytics company VetSuccess.

Curren says her clinic is hoping to loosen COVID restrictions soon to make visits more efficient again.

"I think right now, everyone's just trying to go day to day," Curren said. 

lisa.ryan@ideastream.org | 216-916-6158