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Veterinarian Jacqueline Chevalier says the COVID-19 pandemic created many challenges for her and her staff at Merritts Creek Veterinary Center near Barboursville.

“There was an increase of people with new pets wanting to come in, but we also had a decrease in staff that was willing to work during the worst days of the pandemic,” she said. “So it created some real challenges for us here.”

Approximately 12.6 million U.S. households got a new pet last year after the pandemic was declared in March 2020, according to a COVID-19 Pulse Study by the American Pet Products Association. Meanwhile, fewer people relinquished their pets in 2020, so they needed ongoing care, experts said.

Banfield Pet Hospital, one of the largest national providers of preventive veterinary medicine, had approximately half a million more pet visits in 2020 than in 2019. And its telehealth service more than doubled in volume from March through the end of last year.

Chevalier said she normally would see about 20 pets a day, but the 2020 COVID-19 pet boom brought many new clients to her practice.

“I did see a lot more new puppies and a lot more new patients overall,” she said. “We had to hire another person and we had to just juggle appointments. We just keep trying to do the best we can. It really put a strain on us in a lot of ways.”

Burnout and fatigue continue to be a concern for Chevalier and her staff.

“Everyone is working beyond capacity at this point,” she said. “We have stayed open past our normal hours and take care of everyone as much as we can.”

Chevalier said as people worked from home and spent more time with their pets during the pandemic, they’ve had more opportunities to notice bumps, limps and other ailments that could typically go untreated.

“Maybe the dog would dig at their ears and it might go unnoticed, since they were at home and watching the dog the whole time,” she said. “Even minor things, like an ear infection, became emergencies to pet owners that maybe were not real emergencies, so we got overwhelmed with visits and it hasn’t let up.”

At Chevalier’s practice, removing foreign bodies — such as taking a child’s toy out of a dog’s stomach — increased dramatically during the pandemic.

“During COVID we were doing three or four a week, but I did like one a month pre-pandemic,” she said. “We did more removal of foreign bodies during COVID than we had done in the previous six years.”

Chevalier said other veterinarians in the area, and across the country, told her they are experiencing the same challenging issues.

“One of my friend works in Louisville, Kentucky, and has an emergency practice and said she is seeing skin issues with pets, ear problems and lots of other things they were not equipped to deal with,” she explained. “Emergency clinics don’t carry dermatology or ear products, but the vets that were overwhelmed with their day practice just couldn’t get their pet in for weeks.”

Chevalier said many veterinarians she talked with during the pandemic also had staffing issues and were not able to take additional pets.

“We remained available to those with sick pets,” she said. “So we were seeing their patients in addition to our own.”

Chevalier said emergency care rose at least 40% since the pandemic began. She said Merritts Creek Veterinary Center doesn’t turn away emergency visits, but those visits cost much more.

“The difference is price is significant,” Chevalier said. “An office visit is $50, but if you want to walk in without an appointment the fee is $125.”

While things are beginning to get a little better, Chevalier says she is still booked out three weeks for surgeries and two weeks for an appointment.

“We are doing the best we can with what we have to deal with currently,” she said.

Chevalier said the best thing pet owners can do to help the current situation is to have patience.

“I wish they were just kinder to our staff, kinder to each other and understand that if an emergency comes in they may have to wait a little longer,” she said. “A pet not breathing is more urgent that a pet with an ear infection. That’s the unfortunate part of triage that upsets people because they have been waiting and then someone brings in a pet with a real emergency that we have to deal with first.”

With more pets and fewer vets, these challenges could continue well into the future. Veterinary positions are projected to grow 16% by 2029, nearly four times the average of most other occupations, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. Vet tech jobs are expected to increase nearly 20% in the next five years.

”The industry is growing at a rate that it can’t fill all the roles needed to keep up with the increased demand for services,” said Claire Pickens, a senior director at Thrive, another veterinary hospital primary care group, with 110 facilities across the U.S. It reported a 20% increase in demand during the pandemic.

“The demand continues to grow for veterinary services, and I don’t see that going away any time soon,” Chevalier said. “But there are ways West Virginia could work as a whole to help address this issue. Like if a veterinarian works in Pocahontas County, or in a county that’s in an underserved area, then their student loans can be worked off. I can’t get a vet to come here, and it would be great if West Virginia would open up this opportunity statewide. I believe it would really make a difference.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD or email him at fpace@hdmediallc.com.

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