Meghan Osborne’s waitlist has never been this long. 

The number of hopefuls waiting for a spot at Brunswick’s Blue Dog Daycare fills nine pages and is growing by the day, said Osborne, who owns the business. Some have been on the list since March, she said.

From a business standpoint, it’s a good problem for Osborne to have. She feels for the dog owners searching for a place to send their dogs each day, but there’s not much she can do. Her day care is completely booked. Her training programs are full. All she can do is recommend other facilities, but many owners aren’t having much luck elsewhere, either.

With Maine’s workforce largely going remote because of the coronavirus pandemic, many people have adopted dogs to keep them company. As a result, dog businesses have been booming, but in many cases, the demand for services is outpacing the capacity to meet it.

Veterinarians, already understaffed, are booked solid, and many have had to stop taking new patients. Dog-boarding facilities are at capacity for the weekends. Many people are starting to go back to work now, and new owners are worried about separation anxiety in the “pandemic puppies” who’ve, in some cases, never been left alone.

An October survey from online pet service company Rover.com found that of 1,000 responses nationally, one-third of people had welcomed a cat or dog into their lives since March. In January, another survey of the same size reported even higher numbers – nearly half reported adopting a new dog during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Maine has been no exception, with waiting lists for dog and puppy adoptions at shelters and animal rescues filling up, sometimes within minutes of posting. 

And the waitlists for doggy day care are only growing.

“I think it’s officially a situation,” Osborne said.

Meghan Osborne, owner of Blue Dog Daycare in Brunswick, walks among the dogs in her care on Wednesday. The pandemic was great for dogs, with pet adoptions skyrocketing. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A DOG’S DREAM COME TRUE?

At first glance, the pandemic may have seemed like a best-case scenario for dogs, and in many instances it has been. 

Their owners have been home almost all the time, and a push toward more outdoor activities has meant more walks, hikes and trips to the beach.

But according to Zach Olson, an associate professor of animal behavior at the University of New England, it’s “a little more nuanced than that.” 

For example, in surveys, the majority of dog owners reported no change in their dog’s behavior during the pandemic, he said, and for those who did see a change, most reported a positive one: Dogs were largely calmer and more playful. 

However, dogs are also very sensitive to stress, and in areas where there were higher concentrations of the virus, the stress that their humans felt was almost contagious to the dogs, he said. There was more restlessness, more barking and even more instances of pediatric dog bites. 

The switch to working from home was a disruption in dogs’ routines just as much as it was for their humans, but they adapted. Now, as more people start going back to work and resuming more of a normal schedule, Olson said he expects to see an increase in cases of separation anxiety in the coming months. Signs include excessive barking, using the bathroom in the house and other destructive behavior when left alone.

“We have to adapt together to what life was before,” he said.

Of those taking the Rover survey, 40 percent said they were anxious about going back to in-person work and leaving their pet at home. 

While separation anxiety is a risk as people go back to work, Dr. Christine Calder, a veterinary behaviorist, isn’t seeing many cases of it just yet. 

Instead, she is seeing more fear-based behavior and fear aggression. 

As more dogs are brought into homes from shelters and animal rescues, or as people start bringing their pandemic pups out in public after more than a year of just staying at home, the exposure to strangers can be overwhelming. 

There has also been an increase in aggression toward people in the home, Calder said, as dogs found their routines disrupted when their humans were suddenly home all the time and they couldn’t find anywhere to be by themselves. 

Michelle Belanger, left, and Kortney Bataran, veterinary technicians at Down Maine Veterinary Clinic in Sanford, prepare to remove an intravenous catheter from a beagle named Thelma on Wednesday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

NO WALK IN THE PARK TO FIND CARE

When Meghan Moynihan started teaching remotely from her home in Portland last year, her 4-year-old, rambunctious Goldendoodle, Oliver, was thrilled. 

They were together all the time. 

“I think we’ve become possibly a little too attached,” Moynihan said.

With that in mind, she is now preparing for when summer ends and she has to go back to her workplace.

“To leave him home by himself after so much time (together), I was definitely worried that might be a tough transition,” she said. “I wanted to find something during the day to make sure he wasn’t just sitting there and possibly being anxious.” 

Moynihan isn’t the only pet owner with the same concern, as evidenced by the growing waitlists for doggie day care facilities and dog-walkers.

Roscoe’s Bed and Bark and Camp Bow Wow, both in Portland, are still accepting new clients, but appointments for a temperament evaluation, the first step in the process for starting at day care, are weeks, sometimes months, away.

At Camp Bow Wow, a franchise, they’re sending some dogs for pre-interviews at one of the Massachusetts locations, just to get the ball rolling. The first available appointments are in October, said Taylor Small, social media marketing and events coordinator, and they’re going fast.

Magic of Paws, a pet care services company in North Yarmouth, is seeing much the same.

It’s exciting to have a waitlist for day care, considering there were days last winter when they didn’t have a single dog, owner Nyssa Gatcombe said, but at the same time, it’s hard to have to turn people away.

Gatcombe specializes in training animals with anxiety, though since the pandemic puppy boom, she’s been getting more calls for basic training classes, and she expects that she’ll start seeing more dogs with separation anxiety and humans at the end of their ropes.

She wants to expand the business and increase capacity, but she can’t do it without more staff, and the applicant pool has been dry, despite posting on and boosting the advertisement on every jobs website.

“We’ve only gotten three applications, none of which had any experience,” she said. “It didn’t seem like they were applying for a career, it just seemed like they were applying to make the unemployment job search requirements happy.”

Ali Glick, owner of Tails and Trails, a dog-walking and pet-sitting business for the Greater Portland area (and now dog-walker to Goldendoodle Oliver), is also on the hunt for more employees, which will help her expand her reach. 

She and her two dog-walkers are kept busy with walking and pet-sitting, visiting about 15 to 20 homes each day, and while she is still taking on new clients, it can be “hard keeping up with the demand,” Glick said. “Everyone is looking for some kind of care. People are calling 20 different people and seeing which one or two people are going to respond.” 

On average, a day of day care runs from $20 to over $40, with most prices in southern Maine between $32 and $35 per day. Dog-walking generally costs around $20 to $30 for a 30-minute visit. 

Steve Naumowicz of Wells holds 19-month-old Luca while Dr. Kathryn Nickerson examines the bull mastiff’s ear for signs of infection at Down Maine Veterinary Clinic in Sanford on Wednesday. Naumowicz acquired the dog before the coronavirus struck, but said, “He has been great company during the pandemic.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

‘PERFECT STORM’ FOR VETS

Veterinarians are also struggling to keep up with the demand, faced with a surge in visits and a shortage of doctors. 

According to data compiled by the American Veterinary Medical Association and veterinarian software company VetSuccess, year-over-year visits have increased on average by 4.2 percent. But there aren’t enough doctors to keep pace. 

A study last year by Banfield Pet Hospital, a Washington-based chain of providers with over 1,000 veterinary clinics nationwide, estimated that by 2030, 75 million pets in the United States may not have access to the care they need due to a critical shortage of veterinarians.

Clinics across the state are feeling the pressure. 

Dr. Margaret Shively, a veterinarian at Kennebunk Veterinary Hospital, asked for grace while the practice works in “overdrive” to meet “peak demand … at the same time as a significant shortage of experienced support staff.” 

Down Maine Veterinary Clinic in Sanford is still accepting new clients but is also scheduling several weeks out, said Dr. Michael Bukowski, veterinarian and practice owner.

Having three full-time veterinarians on staff has allowed for a pretty consistent flow of patients, one that Bukowski said is continuing to rise as more people look beyond their own towns for care.

“I’m hearing that people are traveling farther distances because in their area they cannot find a vet,” he said. “I feel like we’re getting a lot of new clients because we’re one of the few places taking on new patients.”

Of course, with the increased visits, the pandemic has also resulted in a financial boon for many clinics – according to the AVMA and VetSuccess industry dashboard, revenue has increased on average by 13.5 percent from this time last year. 

Down Maine Veterinary Clinic experienced its best year ever in 2020, Bukowski said. 

Steve Naumowicz of Wells holds the leash of Luca, a 19-month-old bull mastiff, while waiting for an examination at Down Maine Veterinary Clinic in Sanford on Wednesday. Naumowicz acquired the dog before the coronavirus struck but said, “He has been great company during the pandemic.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

He expects that is due to several contributing factors: There have been more pet adoptions, yes, but stimulus money also enabled many people to afford veterinary care they may have put off in the past, and being home more meant that people were seeing more signs of ailments in their pets. A pandemic-related shift to curbside service also allowed them to be more efficient and see more patients in a day than previously. 

However, while it was a good year from a financial standpoint, it wasn’t all fun and games, he said. 

Veterinary technicians and assistants had to face poor weather for curbside visits, dealing with dogs who may have been territorial over their cars, or pet owners who weren’t as understanding or kind about the situation as they might have been. 

Dr. Matthew Fortin, veterinarian and co-owner of Back Cove Animal Hospital, which opened in Portland in 2019, said the “unprecedented demand” for services is compounded by a “dearth of applicants” for technician and support staff positions. The clinic is lucky to have several full-time veterinarians, he said, but even if they needed to hire more, they wouldn’t be able to support them. 

The sale of local practices to large conglomerates has only worsened the existing staffing problems, he said, resulting in high staff turnover (veterinarians and support staff alike) and an exodus of clients.

“It’s a perfect storm,” Fortin said, “and puts high pressure on the remaining veterinarians in the area.”

Like many others, Back Cove is booking four weeks out for general care, and around double that for surgery.

From the beginning, the clinic’s motto has been “If you’re having an issue, we will see you,” Fortin said, which can be difficult when the schedule is already full. It means longer hours, more work and drop-off appointments.

“The demand is off the charts (and) the stress is really high,” he said.


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