Veterinary offices face special challenges

Veterinary technician Ashley Hurlbut leaves the exam room to prepare a round of shots for Kathy L. Morey’s liter of 11 6-week-old Springer Spaniel puppies on Thursday at North Country Veterinary Services in Pulaski. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

PULASKI — The North Country Veterinary Services office in this village in July decided to allow human clients into the building with their pets under strict pandemic protocols.

Reactions in Pulaski from some human clients (called “nasty,” “unreasonable,” “entitled”) have reflected the pressures faced by pet owners and veterinarians since COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines upended the lives of man and beast.

“Veterinarians and their staffs don’t just work with animals, they work with the people who own and care for those animals, and they often work with those people in difficult or stressful times,” Dr. Douglas Kratt, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association and a practicing veterinarian in LaCrosse, Wis., said in response to e-mailed questions from the Times. “And these times are certainly more stressful than normal, so we understand why people may become frustrated more easily.”

Dr. Kratt said he speaks for all veterinarians when the AVMA asks pet owners to “please be patient and understanding with any changes in procedures due to the pandemic, and to not take out their frustrations on veterinarians and others who are doing everything they can to help care for your pets.”

Veterinary offices face special challenges

A litter of 6-week-old Springer Spaniel puppies waits to be taken into the North Country Veterinary Services office in Pulaski for their first round of shots on Thursday. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

“We’re all trying to navigate this new reality and come up with best approaches for doing our jobs under new and difficult circumstances,” Dr. Kratt said.

The Pulaski policy at NCVS is a switch in pandemic procedures from other north country veterinarian offices, which since spring, have been doing “curbside” service for pets and their owners. The humans stay behind, outside in the parking lots, while pets are escorted inside. Once finished, veterinarians and/or veterinarian technicians go outside to talk to clients, socially distanced, masked.

The other NCVS office, in Scriba, just outside Oswego, is still operating under “curbside” procedures.

“Many veterinarian practices are still there, but we decided in Pulaski to allow one person in, to minimize exposure,” said NCVS hospital manager Ann A. Herman. “We take their temperature, we make them use hand sanitizer when they walk in and we escort the one way into a room and tell them that they have to keep their masks on the entire time they’re in the exam room. We tell them where to sit.”

For the most part, the policy has gone well. But on Sept. 3, Ms. Herman posted a treatise on the Facebook page of NCVS:

“As the pandemic progressed, we’ve experienced a surge of nasty, unsatisfied, unreasonable, entitled clients. Our employees have been screamed and cursed at. This is a national trend, but it is heartbreaking to see our staff treated this way on a daily basis. We are in danger of smart, wonderful technicians and support staff leaving the profession due to the verbal abuse that happens daily ...”

Veterinary offices face special challenges

During standard visits at North Country Veterinary Services in Pulaski, pets are taken from their owner in the initial exam room into this larger area where they’re examined and treated as to avoid extended close contact with owners. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

The staff, Ms. Herman wrote, had to be “very clear”:

“... if you cannot speak to our staff with the courtesy and respect they deserve, we will send your pet’s records elsewhere. We welcome constructive criticism, and are always trying to improve, so we appreciate your feedback, however, our staff needs to be treated with kindness and compassion.”

As of Thursday, the post had nearly 300 shares and almost 200 comments.

“I’ve never seen this level of nastiness,” Ms. Herman said in a phone interview. “I can’t even describe it. I’ve been around the block a few times and I’ve never been in an experience like this before.”

Ninety-five percent of clients, Ms. Herman said, “are fantastic.”

“But there’s that very loud, very vocal 5 percent who are just mad,” she said.

Veterinarian offices that have been doing curbside service have also experienced more pressure.

Nicholas Benedetto, practice manager at Watertown Animal Hospital, declined to share the pandemic protocols at the facility, but said, “I will tell you we have been experiencing the same thing — compassion fatigue, clients definitely being a little more angsty, upset, not being able to get in for a few weeks at a time, but I don’t want to go into protocol.”

Increased stress has also been noted at Town & Country Veterinary Clinic, which has offices in Ogdensburg, Potsdam and Massena in St. Lawrence County.

“All of the clinics have been very busy, and with the added work due to COVID-19 protocols, all our staff has felt the increase in the amount of stress the pandemic has added,” said Alicia Dunn, licensed veterinarian technician at Town & Country.

Veterinary offices face special challenges

Veterinary technician Alicia Dunn pets Luna, a Border Collie mix at Town & Country Veterinary Clinic in Ogdensburg on Friday. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

Ms. Dunn said the majority of clients have adjusted fairly well to the “new normal.”

“We have been speaking with owners over the phone, bringing only animals into the clinic and getting payments from owners outside,” she said. “We appreciate people working with us during these times, even though we know that it’s an added stress sending your pet into the clinic by themselves.”

In the Pulaski office of NCVS, issues often arise when pet owners accompany their pets into the exam room and don’t follow directions.

“Half the time when we walk in their mask is off, they’re wandering around the room touching all this stuff,” Ms. Herman said.

Because of the lack of distance between employees and clients in the Pulaski exam room, the veterinarian brings the pet to a treatment area, while its owner stays behind in the exam room. Sometimes, there is an issue with this.

“I had a woman who started screaming at me,” Ms. Herman said. “She’s literally screaming that no one can take her animal away from her and she demanded all along that that’s the way she has to do it. I tried to say, “I get it. I get that you want to be with your animal. However, this is what we have to do to stay in business. It’s not against you, not against your dog. But for us to stay in business, this is what we have to do.’”

But it was no use.

“She screamed and cursed some more and basically said she’s going elsewhere,” Ms. Herman said.

For some customers, disagreements don’t stem from animal care. They’re based on the pandemic itself.

“The other group is our current clients who either don’t want to follow the COVID protocol we put in place because they believe COVID is a hoax or it’s making too much of it,” Ms. Herman said. “They get mad about that. They get mad because the process we’re doing in order to keep social distance is not something they want.”

Dr. Debra A. Windecker, the managing veterinarian at NCVS, said that doctors often go to cars in the parking lot of the clinics to talk to clients.

Veterinary offices face special challenges

Pet owners must have their temperature checked before being shown to an exam room with their pet at North Country Veterinary Services in Pulaski. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

“Most people are fine and when they see you coming, they put their mask on, and then there’s the ones that just don’t,” she said. “They’re usually the ones that are wandering around outside trying to talk to other people while you’re taking care of their pets. And then there’s the ones who kind of give you a hard time about the whole thing.”

Into the mix comes a boom in pet-ownership. People are spending more time at home and getting more pets to keep them company. This leads to more appointments at veterinarian offices, especially for puppy and kitten first-time health checks.

“In our Pulaski office, we are now booking into January for annual exams, which is unheard of,” Ms. Herman said. “Usually, it’s like a month, a month-and-a-half, not four months.”

New clients have had to be turned away at NCVS, she said.

“Literally, we can’t fit them in, and we can’t do it at the expense of our current clients, they get mad and very often, they call five other places who can’t get them in and by the time they get to us, they’re really mad,” Ms. Herman said.

Dr. Stacey Kenyon, clinic partner at Countryside Veterinary Clinic, which has offices in Lowville, Carthage, Boonville and Otter Lake, said it’s been a challenge to add those new kittens and puppies to the case load.

“To some extent, all of the veterinarian practices are still catching up from the more restrictive services we had to be limited to during the height of the PAUSE,” Dr. Kenyon said. “For seven weeks at least, we were really limited in the services we could offer and how we interacted with doctors and staff and could do very, very few wellness visits.”

At Countryside, a yearly health exam, with vaccines, are being booked six to eight weeks out, Dr. Kenyon said.

“It’s probably doubled — the wait time,” she said.

Dr. Kratt, AVMA president, said the association believes there are a sufficient number of veterinarians to care for pets across the country.

“Although for a variety of reasons, access may be more limited in certain areas,” Dr. Kratt said. “Much of what may look like a shortage of veterinarians, however, is actually a backlog of visits due to service limitations and/or closures earlier in the pandemic. In addition, each appointment may take just a bit longer than normal because of the extra steps being taken to prevent exposure and transmission of COVID-19. That means we can see fewer patients per day than we were able to prior to the pandemic.”

Veterinary offices face special challenges

Ann Herman, the hospital manager at North Country Veterinary Services in Pulaski, holds the clinic’s cat, Genie, in the feline waiting room on Thursday. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

Dr. Kenyon said that veterinary offices, deemed essential services, follow State Health Department guidelines and their governing body is the New York State Veterinary Medical Society, which offers COVID-related guidelines.

“Rarely are they truly mandates,” Dr. Kenyon said. “As an essential business, given that we provide health care services for animals, we’re given a bit of flexibility to determine for our individual practices what protocols we feel we are most comfortable with that will keep our people safe, the public safe, and the animals we serve.”

That’s why, Dr. Kenyon said, protocols may differ at different locations.

“I have no judgment of my colleagues in Pulaski who have determined they can safely provide these services by allowing clients into the building,” Dr. Kenyon said. “Sometimes, it comes down to the layout of the clinic.”

The summer weather has been conducive to the success of the curbside practice at Countryside clinics, Dr. Kenyon said.

“We have ongoing discussions every week, reevaluating,” Dr. Kenyon said. “We’re working on our plan as we move forward into the fall as to how and when we may feel we can continue to keep our clients and staff safe, and what that will look like when we start allowing clients to come into the building.”

Countryside staff, Dr. Kenyon said, can often get hints on how to proceed by looking at other segments of society in dealing with the pandemic, such as how schools are operating.

“We watch other services, other situations,” she said. “Just to see how it goes and make sure there’s not a surge and worrisome cases and so forth.”

Dr. Kenyon added, “Every practice in the north country has to decide for themselves, staff and clients how to proceed the best, based on what information we’re given from our governing organizations.”

Ms. Dunn said that Town and Country hopes to alter curbside service soon.

“We’re hoping that we can start allowing people to bring their animals to the door, wait for their pets to have their exams and any diagnostics and then come back in to get their pet within the next month,” she said. “We’ve not decided when we will allow people into exam rooms with their pets due to the uncertainty of a potential surge of COVID-19.”

All veterinarian practices in the area, Dr. Kenyon said, have to balance the ability to offer wellness, urgent care and emergency services, all while dealing with same-day appointments. At Countryside, Dr. Kenyon said, “We purposely have to book available spots for those sick emergency and urgent care appointments. We just don’t fill our schedule with wellness visits.”

Veterinary offices face special challenges

Veterinary technician Ashley Hurlbut helps Kathy L. Morey, of Camden, unload a litter of 11 6-week-old Springer Spaniel puppies on Thursday in the North Country Veterinary Services parking lot in Pulaski. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

Countryside Veterinary Clinic also has an option where owners can drop their pet off for the day, giving veterinarians more time options to see the pet. Dr. Kenyon said that veterinarians usually assigned to large animals have been filling in occasionally to see cats, dogs and other small animals.

Dr. Debra Windecker, one of 10 veterinarians at NCVS, said that with more people spending more time at home with their pets, more things are being noticed about those pets, which could lead to a call to a veterinarian.

“There’s more of a focus on home, and I think pets are part of home for people,” she said.

But often, the things pet owners are now noticing about their pets, health wise, are minor.

“I think they’re finding things they maybe wouldn’t have found before,” Dr. Windecker said. “They’re finding things earlier and are more worried about things that they wouldn’t have been worried about before.”

Too much time together with a pet can also lead to issues.

“I think there’s something to be said for the animals being overall healthier if the humans are gone for eight to ten hours a day,” Dr. Windecker said. “They’re going for more walks, so more things are happening. They’re feeding them grapes or chocolate, or things that they shouldn’t.”

If it’s an issue on a dog walk, Dr. Windecker said it usually involves another dog.

“It’s usually like a dog fight or some type of altercation, or they get loose and won’t come back for a while and they have a cut on their leg or burdocks on them, or limping,” she said.

Like one of those down-and-out dogs needing help, we all may feel a bit battered as we struggle with the pandemic. But Ms. Herman concluded her Facebook post on an upbeat note:

“We hope the world will be better in the future, but in the meantime, we need to be thoughtful with each other to get through these difficult times.”

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