The Veterinarian and Vet Tech Shortage Is Getting Really Scary

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Back in July, I wrote a piece for this space about the increasing frequency of reports I was seeing about emergency veterinary clinics suspending 24-hour service. I asked readers if they were experiencing this in their parts of the country – and people from everywhere in the U.S. responded that, YES, wait times have increased exponentially at veterinary ER clinics and it’s getting harder to find one that still offers overnight care.

Well, I finally came up against the phenomenon myself. My friend Leonora has a tiny little dog, Samson (my dog Woody’s best friend from puppyhood). Samson’s usual weight is 4 pounds, 8 ounces – his long legs are like pencils and he is slender. But a little over a week ago, he vomited up a little puddle of bile on a Friday morning and refused to eat anything for the rest of the day. Leonora reported that he was still relatively cheerful, though a little quieter than usual – and he refused any food or treat offered to him.

When, on Sunday morning, the tiny guy was still refusing food, Leonora and I agreed he should be seen by a veterinarian. She called our closest 7-day veterinary clinic. They said they could absolutely NOT fit him in that day, nor for more than a week for a regular appointment, but if Leonora wanted to drop him off on Monday and have him spend the day with them, they could try to look at him between appointments. Leonora was grateful for the offer, but no. Samson is so small, he has nearly nothing in terms of bodily reserves, so we both felt it was important to try to have him seen sooner.

Then she called our closest veterinary emergency practice (about 30 minutes away). They said that the current wait time was at least 4-5 hours, and that all cases would be triaged, so if worse cases came in and Samson was stable, his appearance in front of a veterinarian would be pushed back. Fair enough on a Sunday, but yikes!

She called another emergency practice, a bit farther away, and they said their wait time was about 2 hours, with the same triage/worse cases rule in place. I told her I would go with her and hang out with her for the wait. We arrived at about 11 am – and left that evening at about 7 pm with some concerning blood test results, an anti-nausea medication, and some subcutaneous fluids onboard for Samson, and a recommendation to head to another clinic the next day if the morning saw him no better and still not eating.

Monday morning, still no appetite. Leonora and Samson spent 8 hours the next day at our closest emergency clinic, and left that evening with yet more medications (more of the anti-nausea drug, an appetite stimulant, an antibiotic, and a probiotic) and more sub-q fluids on board, more inconclusive blood test results, and an appointment for more tests the next day.

On Tuesday, he had more tests, more meds – and by that night, his appetite began returning. The further tests had ruled out multiple conditions that could have caused his lack of appetite and abnormal blood test results, though we still don’t know what caused his initial nausea and lack of appetite. He has an appointment for another blood draw at the end of this week and one with a veterinary gastroenterologist in a month.

The Veterinarian and Vet Tech Shortage Is Getting Really Scary
Samson cuddling with his big buddy Woody.

As scary as it was for those of us who care about Samson, his story is undramatic; while Leonora’s wait times were lengthy, Samson did receive care and attention on each day – something that we have gotten accustomed to taking for granted but are extra grateful for today. We’re glad that it wasn’t something worse but can’t help but worry; it might still develop that his condition is chronic and serious.

And of course, I worry about my most fragile dog, soon-to-be 14-year-old Otto. As Samson has grown steadily better this past week, Otto skipped three consecutive meals himself! Why?! A year ago or more, he had gone through a period where he didn’t want to eat much, and was prescribed some medications to soothe his digestive tract and fight any nausea he might be experiencing. After his second skipped meal this week, I jumped to ask his vets for prescriptions of those medications again –and tried not to panic when I learned that both of the vets he’s seen most commonly – at two different clinics! – were out of town for a few days. Fortunately, another vet at one of those practices was able to look at his records and sign off on dispensing those meds. Of course, after his third skipped meal but before I had given him a single medication, Otto asked for dinner and has dug into every food dish with relish since then. Oy!

But I’m glad to have the meds on hand, just in case. And I will be making an appointment for him to be seen; if it takes a month to get an appointment, I need to start now!

If, in the back of your mind, you know your dog needs a veterinary appointment soon, get on the phone and make that call today! You may not be able to book a routine appointment for months! And be extra careful with your own dog, so accidental poisoning or injuries (as much as that may be possible) can be prevented.

38 COMMENTS

  1. Our area has a more than 30% increase in dog ownership during Covid. More dogs, more demands for everything including veterinary care. We cannot meet the demand for training and behavior consultations related to lack of socialization. It’s both sad and scary for these dogs’ futures.

    • I am worried too. Shelter animals and rescues have been returned by adopters and that’s the good news. All the cats I trapped this summer and fall were dumped pets. In one case, a woman saw from her apartment window a man open the door of a pet carrier and turn it out over a garden wall. The contents were four 6-7 months old kittens. Most bizarre was that one of the four– obviously siblings– was microchipped. An implanted microchip is usually a sign of a responsible rescuer or owner. However, none of the kittens were altered. No responsible rescue would adopt out an animal without prior s/n or an ironclad promise from adopter. Did hard times make someone desperate do what was previously unthinkable?

      In August, a juvenile purebred German Short-haired Pointer, wearing what looked like a brand new harness, and with leash attached, was running around the traffic-heavy Riverside Drive and the adjacent parks. The friendly dog approached a NYC Parks dept. employee who picked up the leash. Five hours later, the work day was over and no one had come looking for the dog. Some neighbors coordinated with a breed rescue on Facebook and officers from the local police precinct transported him to one of their volunteers.

  2. I just had this happen personally. My 11 year old dog had two pretty serious seizures within 5 hours on Monday (he has never had one before). His regular vet had no appointments. I called our local ER vet, they reported a 6-7 hour wait time. I called an ER vet 40 minutes away and was told they could take him and to head that way. When we arrived I was told a more urgent case had since come in and the vet would not be able to see him for at least 6 hours. I was not going to leave him. Luckily a friend that is a vet kept her clinic open long enough for me to get him there, even though he is not her patient. She was able to get him on anti-seizure medication that night.

  3. This is a giant issue, and if I understand the dynamic correctly it’s largely about vet techs. Yes, there’s been a huge increase in pet ownership, but that alone doesn’t explain this frightening situation. Around here (Washington DC and the MD/VA suburbs) there are enough actual veterinarians, but there are not enough vet techs to keep things moving quickly. In a normally staffed vet hospital, the vet techs are handling all sorts of things efficiently and well so that the doctor’s plate is way less full and she can move from patient to patient. But now nobody can find enough vet techs, so everything is slowing down dramatically, thus the wait times. I think maybe the vet tech experience thus far seems to have way too much sadness/stress for the financial/emotional return, and so people have simply left. We need them back.

    • I wonder if vet school enrollments are down, and if that decrease is across the board, geographically and per capita. In some states, antiquated and insufficient laws typically buried with other animal-related statutes in the state’s agriculture and commerce codes, need updating and replacing to allow more situations for veterinarians to practice legally, such as qualified recent graduates being allowed to perform/assist at low-cost spay/neuter clinics. Also, I wonder if there is a morass of licensing and insurance requirements between states. I wonder if some income tax incentives, or partial forgiveness of vet school loans, could be implemented to attract veterinarians to under-served areas (perhaps all areas are under-served).

      Veterinarians and veterinary services were not designated as “essential” in NYC when the pandemic started! Public outcry caused, fairly rapidly, reclassification. It makes me wonder where else animal wellness and medical care was overlooked.

    • It’s not vet tech needs. I had a situation in august with a 8 month old puppy. Called around the northern Virginia area to 9 ! Emergency hospitals at 8 pm. None of them would take her. Called back about 3 hours later and one of them said they could take her but said it might be 4 to 5 hours before a vet saw her. I drove 40 minutes to that place and they were wonderful and treated her successfully. But that location which ph has been strictly 24 hr emergency vet services for 10 years just sent an email saying they were quitting emergency services and switching to a regular practice. They claim it’s due to vet dr burnout and inability and shortage of vets across country to hire for emergency services. I pray I don’t need service for her for years….

  4. I noticed what looks like a Seresto collar on Otto. If it is, could that flea/tick medication collar for *large dogs be effecting little Samson? Just a thought. Both pups are adorable and I hope both are doing very well now and over whatever the illness cause.

    • I have two little dogs–not much lager than Samson. Both wear Seresto collars–but only after I went a round with my vet to ensure myself that this collar would pose no risk to either of my babies. They’ve been wearing the collars over a year now (not the same collar–we changed to new ones after about 7 months of use), and so far no problems whatsoever. I pressed my vet on just about everything and after making sure I had a long list of things to look for, I took the plunge and put on the collars. Happily, we’ve had absolutely no problems at all with them.

      • Seresto collars have been found by a couple of “unscientific” studies to be very deadly. Here is the thought, a chemical running thru a dog’s blood nonstop is attacking the dog’s vital organs especially liver and kidneys. The studies from the PHARM companies, say it is a wonderful for a dog. Of course, has anybody ever heard a pharm company say anything different besides please take more chemicals or drugs?
        My thought is this, since my rescues are like children to me, I will never trust a pharm company. First, why pump nonstop chemical into a dog? What is the natural alternative? Nature provides just about everything an animal or human really needs. I’ve seen 2 dogs die from this collar.
        Just a thought, but really try and look into the alternatives… I believe these pharm companies are killing animals like flies, but that is just my opinion. and I’ve seen many vets push those collars, just criminal and so sad.
        Don’t take this comment personal, the warnings of what the collars do to the dog’s insides is not something that is said until it is to late.
        A holistic vet told me, if the warning label includes warnings like not safe for children, not safe to touch, toxic to waterways and fish, then whatever is on the dog is deadly. includes those liquid chemicals pet parents use too.

    • That’s actually Woody with little Samson — and the photo is a few years old. They haven’t slept together for months. We haven’t figured out what set off Samson’s troubles.

  5. I lost a six day old puppy because I couldn’t get her into a local vet for treatment when she desperately needed oxygen. I was sent on a Saturday morning to an Emergency Vet Clinic over an hour away. It was precious time lost. Everything that could be done for a 14 oz puppy to stabilize her was done, but it was too little too late. Her lungs gave out after being in distress for too long. I am completely distraught over it and it will take time to trust that I can get the best care for my dogs again any time soon. Thank God my girl has 3 other puppies that will be 3 weeks old on Saturday. I am tempted in the future to try to have additional supplies on hand at home to prevent a situation like this happening again.

    • I am sorry and saddened by the puppy’s death. I hear the excuses for buying at pet stores like puppies from responsible breeders are so expensive, and breeders (and rescues) want them to answer too many questions. Your intention to be more prepared for medical emergencies is an example of why breeders have more costs… they care! I’ll wager that pet stores don’t have proper supplies and equipment or the staff trained to deal with medical emergencies. Puppies at pet stores aren’t less than two weeks old, like your poor little guy, but a bunch of other factors make them fairly vulnerable, too.

  6. My vet has given me saline bags and needles for subcutaneous rehydration if necessary. Depends on if your vet is comfortable w it. Plus my best friend is a retired vet tech!

  7. This is the time to start learning how to treat your dog at home if need be. I am not saying the big stuff but digestive upset might be treated by slippery elm or other herbs. Seizures can be slowed down by cbd oil and homeopathy once they are controlled. Homeopathy is very useful in both human and animal related stuff.

    • Homeopathy is snake oil. It has absolutely no medicinal value whatsoever. Please do not trade actual medical treatment for some mystical “remedy” that is said to work by drawing upon a liquid retaining a “memory” of the “energy” of an ingredient which has been diluted by a factor of 10^30. That’s a big number. A 1 followed by 30 zeros. Which means that the active ingredient in these potions contain 1 part out of ten billion billion billionths. More easily expressed as ZERO.

  8. We’ve noted that it takes a bit longer to get our dogs in to our vet and I know she’s short staffed (has cut her hours by two hours each day). Very happily, it hasn’t really impacted our getting our dogs in to see the vet. We’re very lucky in that work hours are somewhat flexible, so if we need to get a dog to the vet at 10:30 a.m., we’re able to do it without any work-related issues preventing us from snapping up any open appointments. I hope we’ll be spared what many of you are experiencing and I hope your situation improves greatly very soon. We’re outside of Knoxville, TN and we tend to have a lot of vets here, two emergency clinics, plus the University of Tennessee school of Veterinary Medicine (which also serves as a source for emergency care). We have a number of really great specialty vets here (both internal to the UT Vet School and in their own practice) and it we don’t really have to wait that long to bee seen (except at the Vet School, with appointments for non-emergency things being a month to two months in advance–one of our little guys has been diagnosed with a juvenile cataract; the vet noticed it on routine exam, we didn’t notice it ourselves until she pointed it out and the light has to be “just right” to see it and it doesn’t interfere with vision too much, so he has no “symptoms”; we took him to the veterinary ophthalmologist and it took us about 6 weeks to get in, but this is a non-emergency with a dog having absolutely no symptoms of visual impairment).

  9. Yes that is happening her in NC where I currently live. I have my own dogs and foster dogs. Since the nightmare that is currently our existence right now I check my own dogs records and schedule routine appointments way ahead of time but foster dogs are another story. I took in 2 littles who were in terrible shape when I picked them up from the shelter the 7 pound dog was not eating or drinking and had not during her time at the shelter…..I was very concerned. The vet was closed because of covid….but they did give me advice about some things to try. I gave her some of the home made chicken broth that I make for the dogs every day……she lapped it up… the next time I gave her some broth with tender cooked chicken pieces in it….she ate that. Both have now been seen by the vet and are on their way to a new life……but it was very worrisome time.

  10. THIS is exactly why we should be, all of us fur-parents, educating ourselves in the ways of homeopathics, herbs, and food as medicine. We’ve become complacent and have lost too much knowledge in caring for our fur-family members as well as animal husbandry for our outside critters.

    We’ve lost too much and we need to find it again and become self-reliant.

  11. We’re in the mountains of western NC. That’s happening here too. The vet hospital close by that is open 24 hours for emergencies can’t schedule regular appointments until December. If you go in as an emergency they can’t begin to predict how long you’ll wait. At least they’re still open.
    The other vet I use (doesn’t do any after-hours work- refers you to the 24 hour emergency clinic ) is having a staffing problem and wait times for regular appointments are at least 1 to 2 weeks longer than normal.

  12. The same situation is happening in Canada. I live near Ottawa, the Nation’s capital, and keep hearing stories from members of the dog community here about being unable to get into an emergency clinic, much less a regular veterinary practice. Even in cases of a dog developing sudden paralysis, urinating blood and in distress, or hit by a car, they are being turned away from all 4 emergency clinics due to lack of staffing. Owners are having to drive hours out of town to other cities to have their pets seen. As the owner of two senior dogs I find the current situation truly terrifying.

  13. The shortage of veterinary professionals– doctors, techs, everyone — is a crisis in New York City for community cats, and all rescuers of companion animals. The community cat population is exploding because the TNR rescuers can’t get spay/neuter appointments. I’ve been doing TNR since 2017. This is a new high in the number of kittens rescued from the streets having congenital deformities and thus special needs. The private vet practice I use for my dog Sophie lost 4/5 of DVMs. The founding veterinarian had to put aside the work she was doing for urban wildlife and other rescues. Somehow, she hired four new doctors. I haven’t met any of them yet.

  14. Same here in Australia. Took the time (4 days notice) to advise my listed after hours vet of my due litter only to be told I would be lucky to get help after 10pm. What a joke.
    Lucky for us she whelped safely in the afternoon.

  15. We had one of our dogs at an emergency vet clinic San Antonio Texas for a couple days due to issues with vomiting etc. When I went to pick her up they had a notice that they were not taking in any more animals. The receptionist told us that This is very common and that a lot of times nothing is open for emergencies. She also explained that there is an absolute shortage of vets. We talked more and her opinion was that maybe perhaps people need to start doing Apprenticeships in veterinary care as a lot of people don’t have the money or don’t want a heavy debt that a school often burdens them with.

  16. Both of my dogs are young right now. Freyja is not quite a year and a half and Diana will be three at the end of the month. But when Ramses got elderly and more picky about his food, his vet said I could give him omeprezole, the same med and dosage I was taking for my acid reflux. Apparently older dogs can get it just like us seniors. There are some people meds dogs can take but always check with your vet first to make sure, plus dosages can be different since dog metabolism and people metabolism are different. Likewise, I was told to give Benadryl to Caesar when he got itchy. Same as I took for seasonal allergies.

    Every dog I’ve had has skipped at least a meal or two perodically throughout their lives but I agree that no eating for days is a problem. Caesar didn’t eat for three days once but I also noticed that he was having problems at the other end. He was willing but the bowel was not. Eventually he did unblock the one end and more than made up for it intaking at the other.

    But Samson could have been in serious trouble if he had a blockage or some other more serious physical problem. He could have died because of the delay in seeing a vet and that is what is worrying. It is every owners fear that they lose their beloved companion not for something beyond treatment but for something that could have been easily been addressed had it been done in time. So often it is a matter of time, how quickly we take action. And that is the real danger of this shortage. That we lose our pet because they cannot see a vet in time.

  17. Here in San Francisco we have a serious vet shortage. I’m not sure why. I stopped using my previous vet two years ago, after they “lost” a fecal sample, then misdiagnosed my dog and I had to take her to a vet ER for treatment. Now, that same ER only takes patients with “life threatening emergencies.” My 12 year old Irish setter’s 5 lb.-weight loss, diarrhea/ food refusal cycles didn’t qualify. The vet we were seeing at the SPCA for the past 2 years has left the practice, which now gets horrible patient reviews. I tried waiting at the ER for 3 or 4 hours for an opening, but finally had to give up and go home. Before I left, I was handed a list of ER’s outside San Francisco to try—in the East Bay, Marin and down the peninsula. Unfortunately, I have a neurological condition that makes it impossible for me to drive that far and my spouse, who’s blind in one eye, doesn’t drive at all.

  18. My Jeddie was feeling fine, in the yard…she came in and Her gums were blue! I called my vet of 30 years and theu couildnt see her. I called the only emergency vet and rushed her ther….they took her in along with cc and driver’s license. It was a 90+ degree day. Periodically they came out to tell me…I asked the vet via phone if they would let me in if she was critical and yes,they assured me. I am 80 years old. I didnt have enuf gas to keep the ac on so I sat under a tree. Not even a cup of water…
    After 10 hours they said go home we will call. Had to get license back,,,got home.,…I knew. They called at 2am saying she died. “Do you want tosee the body?” I just wanted toi tell her what a good girl nshe was. That was all. II won’t get over it.

    • SO sorry for your loss! What a terrible story! And so sorry that no one realized that you could have used some extra consideration!

  19. I’m in Canada as well….and we’re having the same problem here. One ER clinic tells you to go to a website..( all this as your driving ..trying to get help..) , pay $85. with a card and that virtual vet will see if this is really an emergency. (What about the people who cannot afford this payment..?) If so…he would call the clinic and say…yes..this pet needs to be seen ! This clinic is presently considering closing even on the weekends and nights…so we would have to drive 1-2 hours to another clinic which in fact might not even be able to see any more emergencies !!! I would assume that the College of Veterinarians and Surgeons should be doing something about this asap !!! Very scary for our precious pets..

  20. This isn’t anything that can help most people immediately, just something to think about. I have been taking my dogs to the same large vet clinic for almost thirty years, in spite of the fact that I moved an hour away (at highway speed). Several vets there know me (including one on the emergency staff), as well as other staff. They know how I care for my dogs, and when I need something, I can get it with a phone call. There’s not a lot of loyalty in this world (except from our dogs!) but my long-term relationship as paid off for my dogs.

  21. I’m finding that Vetmedin (heart med) and Vetoryl (trilostane) [Cushing’s disease] are on back-order at Costco/& on-line suppliers, so I would recommend that you place your refill orders as soon as eligible to keep from running out.

  22. My vet’s comments on this: They have 3 vets at their clinic, they had 4 but his daughter [the 4th vet] had a baby and is staying at home. They have recruited all over — and offer a dream package of benefits. I have actually seen them going at almost a dead run back and forth when I am there. He says a lot of the problem is – [just as his daughter did] a lot of females are going to Vet School, graduate, practice for a couple of years, then get married start a family, decide to stay home with the baby/ ’til the kids are in school/ etc. and stop being vets.

    • Over the years I have personally lost three veterinarians, as well as a variety of other types of practitioners, to this very reason. I’m sure it’s not a totally easy, breezy decision for them. And I sure do not want to disparage motherhood. Not at all. But, dang, I’m sick of losing good practitioners to babies.

  23. No one has touched on the point that veterinarians and vet techs are the professions most likely to commit suicide!
    Now that the vet business has become even more stressful, it’s no wonder to me that there’s a vet shortage! I work part-time at our county’s only 24-hour emergency hospital (corporate owned)and they are thrilled with anytime I can work. It’s extremely stressful for me as receptionist to deal with unhappy pet parents, I know the techs and doctors have much more stress. The fact that these amazing people keep showing up for their jobs proves that they want to help animals in need! Please be kind to them!

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