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West Michigan veterinarians are overwhelmed due to the pandemic

Local vets are booking appointments three weeks out and say they probably will not catch up to provide same day appointments for many patients any time soon.

MICHIGAN, USA — A 14-year-old dog was seen Dec. 21 at the Grand Rapids Veterinary Clinic. The dog was experiencing general issues due to his age and condition, and was one out of seven urgent care patients, which was just a fraction of what the clinic could usually fit in before the pandemic changed the veterinarian industry.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) stated that nationally the industry was backlogged in the midst of changing protocols to keep everyone safe, but regionally it's the Midwest clinics that are still a ways behind in getting back to their normal booking schedule. 

In Holland, Dr. Diane Bergstrom at Ottawa Animal Hospital told 13 ON YOUR SIDE about when they got their first surge in appointments. 

"In March when there was the first shutdown, we thought, 'Okay, how is this gonna affect us? Are we going to be allowed to stay open?' And gratefully we were, and maybe for one week things were a little bit quieter, and then it just was busy from the get-go," Bergstrom said. "It surprised us all, we weren't expecting it but it just kept building and going and now we can't see as many clients as we used to because of the precautions, so the calendar filled up quick."

Clients being in the building with their pets became too much of an exposure risk, so the hospital started to do curbside services. 

Back in Grand Rapids, Dr. Susan Schoen explained what curbside service looked like for her office, which is also backlogged. 

"With curbside appointments, they take a lot longer and you have to have a lot more technicians available because they have to run out to the car and get the pet, and then come in and triage it," Schoen said. "Then the doctor sees it and then they take it back to the owner and then they get payment, so it's a lot of steps that we don't normally have because usually we actually will try to check people out right in the exam room, you know, just to save them effort and time. So, yeah, definitely we're, we're backlogged."

Credit: leona dunn

The pandemic itself did not create the now standard two to three week wait times these clinics now share in order to book general vaccination wellness appointments.

AVMA President Dr. Douglas Kratt, who owns a veterinarian practice in Wisconsin, boke down the factors vets were seeing nationally that put them in this situation.

"I would say, again multiple contributing factors occurred, people are spending more time home with their pets. So they are potentially observing some behaviors that they may not have recognized in the past. So that would be part of it. We did see an increase in adoptions in both dogs and cats I'm a small animal practitioner. Some people were adding another pet into their family, some didn't have any, and since they're going to spend some time at home thought it was a good time to get one," Kratt said.

Kraft says both cats, dogs and other animals had been called to fill the void that the lack of human interaction left wide open.

And with new pets come's new shots and new worries.

"Just the demand for veterinary care in general, people love their pets, there's no doubt about that and being home more they see these issues that get them concerned, like anxiety," Bergstrom said. "There may be a little bit more anxiety in some of the pets, but is that because they're observing you more or our pets are so sensitive to us and they feed off of us, and goodness knows everybody feels more anxiety right now," Kratt said.

"I think people were sharing maybe a little bit of their own food with their pets that may not have happened as often before and so I think we saw a little bit of an uptick in certain kinds of things in those in those areas too."

Stomach aches and irritated skin were very common appointments before the weeks of waiting began, but now with a nation full of new pet owners and social distancing requirements, the industry has used more Telemedicine appointments as a way to try and squeeze in more patients.

For those planning on booking a future appointment, here is some advice from these small animal practitioners on what to do while you wait, or if you should wait, depending on how urgent the matter is. 

  • Any pet should be established with a veterinarian. Call and if they say, 'We can't get you in for three weeks, make that appointment for three weeks so at least you're going to be establishing a routine, like a primary care physician for a veterinarian. And then when you have a problem, you're already established somewhere rather than just seeking that emergency medicine which can be difficult to get at the last minute. If you truly do have an emergency, there are emergency hospitals (which currently have wait list due to the local veterinary back logs) you can get in them but call around, see, get on cancellation lists. Every clinic has different situations but I, again, my main recommendation is call get get established already moved to a practice. - Dr. Bergstrom
  • My messaging right now for people is that I want to make sure that they understand if they are concerned, don't worry about the backlog of care and how long you can get in. I recommend that they reach out and talk with their veterinarian right away. And then determine how critical it is to be able to get in and be seen. - Dr. Kratt.
  • I would say practice patience. Most of our clients have been absolutely wonderful and they see how hard the staff is working but I think the main thing for everybody really is to understand in this time, every now and then there's nothing we can do but come patient and prepared. We will get to you as soon as we can, I promise, the vets will. -Dr. Schoen.

Veterinarians are just another essential job practicing medicine in the midst of this pandemic. Most animal clinics around West Michigan are booking vaccinations two to three weeks in advance and medical appointments, like surgeries, one to two weeks in advance. 

Some clinics are not taking new patients at this time due to their backlog of regular customers. 

Curbside appointments are estimated to be a couple of hours depending on the visit. Vaccination visits can usually take up to an hour depending on the pet.

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