LEWISTON – If you did not adopt a “pandemic puppy” sometime over the past year and a half, it is likely someone you know did.

VCA Lewiston Animal Hospital Technician Supervisor Sonja Harris gets a kiss Friday afternoon from Harley at the facility on Stetson Road in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

While our furry friends’ companionship has been a lifeline for many during this time, the boom in pet ownership combined with the challenges of practicing veterinary medicine during a public health emergency, has put a strain on the veterinarians who keep our loved ones healthy.

Denise Morin is a client service representative and veterinary assistant at the VCA Lewiston Animal Hospital on Stetson Road. She said that there just hasn’t been enough staff on hand or hours in the day to meet the demand that’s been growing since the early days of the pandemic.

“We would fill our appointment schedule quickly and appointments were being pushed further and further out,” she said in an email. “It now is to the point that we are booking routine appointments to the end of September/early October. Other local veterinarian hospitals are booking into December.”

Every day they set aside a few appointment slots for emergent cases but more often than not, those slots get booked up right away and staff will start referring people to other clinics in the area.

“The phones immediately start ringing at 7 a.m. — and don’t stop until 6 p.m. — and we get so many more calls for those valuable spots,” Morin said.

Nearby, at the Animal Emergency Clinic of Mid-Maine on Strawberry Avenue in Lewiston, hospital manager Dawn Eliot-Johnson said the clinic’s parking lot often fills up before they even open. The clinic is open 24/7 for walk-in appointments.

“Almost immediately we have a two-to-four-hour wait. We have doubled up on our veterinary staff and would like to have more vet techs, but there is a shortage of licensed or even experienced techs in our area,” Eliot-Johnson said.

It may not be so much that there are fewer and fewer veterinarians and veterinary technicians getting licensed each year, said Maine State Veterinarian, Dr. Michele Walsh, but that the number of people entering the profession each year hasn’t kept pace with the boom in pet ownership — as much as 8% nationally in 2020, according to a January report published by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

VCA Lewiston Animal Hospital veterinary assistant Ashlynn Foss, left and Technician Supervisor Sonja Harris examine Harley at the facility on Stetson Road in Lewiston Friday afternoon. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the number of licensed vets in the state only increased by about 2% from 2019 to 2020. The number of vet techs decreased by just under 4%.

“But I think it’s multifactorial,” Walsh said, who has been in her position for 8 ½ years.

Veterinary clinics did not close during the pandemic but instead shifted to a new model of care — curbside treatment, telehealth follow-ups and more — that added to the amount of time that each appointment requires. And the financial impact that many people faced over the past 16 months exacerbated an already existing trend where people who could not afford routine visits would only seek care in emergency situations, Walsh said.

There are only a handful of after-hours emergency clinics in the state, the Animal Emergency Clinic of Mid-Maine in Lewiston being one of them.

“At times, the front desk staff has had to make a judgement call as to how serious an illness is and how urgently it needs to be seen,” Morin, from the VCA Lewiston Animal Hospital, said. “Unfortunately, we can’t make an appointment for all of the pets that are in need as we simply don’t have the staff or enough hours in the day to accommodate and say yes to all of them.”

They’ll refer people to the emergency clinic in Lewiston or Veterinary Quick Care in Freeport, another walk-in clinic.

Morin said that sometimes all available appointments for the day at the Freeport clinic will be snapped up within an hour of opening and wait times are “in excess of hours.”

“This is heartbreaking for our staff,” Morin said.

Though the situation sounds scary, it should not discourage people from adopting a pet or seeking care for them, Walsh said. “There are plenty of veterinarians, quality veterinarians practicing in our state who want to see everybody’s animals and service as many animals as they can.”

While the pandemic has made existing trends worse, there are several initiatives out there working to bring more people to the profession.

There are two programs — one state and one federal — that offers student debt relief for individuals that will dedicate a certain number of years to practicing in Maine. Another program through the Maine Veterinary Medical Association’s education foundation offers over $30,000 in scholarships annual, said executive director Katherine Soverel.

The Help Fix ME program through the Maine Animal Welfare program offers low-cost spay and neutering for individuals who cannot afford to do so, which helps control overpopulation, Walsh said.

Walsh encouraged anyone with a pet to find a veterinarian and schedule that routine check-up as soon as possible.

“I think this is part of the responsibility of pet ownership, is that you should make an effort to have a relationship in advance of any emergency with your local veterinarian,” she said. “You may need to wait for an appointment, but it’s worth making that investment and creating that relationship.”

Animal Tales is a recurring Sun Journal feature about animals and their people. Have an idea for Animal Tales? Call Emily Bader at 780-9103 or email her at [email protected]

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