Kittyland founder and president Ann Woods: “Just today, a woman drove 200 miles with her sick pet to see her old vet where she used to live, since she couldn’t get an appointment in the valley.”

Ann Woods is the founder and president of Kittyland, a nonprofit shelter and sanctuary for cats in Desert Hot Springs. She regularly receives phone calls from distraught owners seeking veterinary attention for their beloved pets—including a recent call from one person who said she could not get a vet appointment for her cat until July.

“The cat could be dead by then,” Woods said.

Through her work with Kittyland, Woods has seen firsthand how the pandemic has placed unprecedented strain on the veterinary industry, with the Coachella Valley having too few vets and staffers for the number of pets needing help.

“Just today, a woman drove 200 miles with her sick pet to see her old vet where she used to live, since she couldn’t get an appointment in the valley,” Woods said.

The employee shortage has caused many animal clinics to stop accepting new clients, despite frantic pleas from pet owners. And if a pet needs care from a specialist, there can be a wait of up to seven months.

The problem is aggravated by the spike in the number of pets adopted following the shelter-in-place order. Nationwide, approximately 12.6 million households had acquired a new furry member of the family since the pandemic arrived in March 2020, according to a COVID-19 Pulse Study by the American Pet Products Association.

“We’ve had so many adoptions; maybe people were lonely,” Woods said. “It (is normally) very slow to adopt out adult cats, but now we’ve had a huge run on adult cats.”

The vet shortage is not just a problem in the Coachella Valley; it’s a nationwide problem. A recent Associated Press story said: “Fewer people relinquished their pets in 2020, so they needed ongoing care, experts said. And as people worked from home and spent more time with their pets, they’ve had more opportunities to notice bumps, limps and other ailments that could typically go untreated. Vets were already struggling to meet the pre-pandemic demand, with veterinary schools unable to churn out enough doctors and techs to fill the void.”

Dr. Kathryn Carlson, director and owner of Village Park Animal Hospital in La Quinta, said that before the pandemic, the hospital had a staff of 49. Today, it has a staff of 38.

Dr. Kathryn Carlson, director and owner of Village Park Animal Hospital in La Quinta: “I lost two of my receptionists when a client was rude, even using profanities, which caused my two receptionists to cry.”

“It’s difficult to say no to new clients,” Carlson said. “But with fewer staff, we just can’t do it. If we did, the quality would go down, and we would have to turn away pet owners we’ve had for years, which would be disloyal to them.”

This lack of resources has resulted in frustration and fury on the part of some pet owners.

“People get upset, and they’re emotional when dealing with their pets—and with the pandemic, it becomes even more of a struggle,” Carlson said. “I lost two of my receptionists when a client was rude, even using profanities, which caused my two receptionists to cry.”

Lori Jackman, the hospital manager at Desert Dunes Animal Hospital in Bermuda Dunes, said some clinics have lost staff members because they had to take time off to care for their children when the schools closed.

“If a general veterinary practitioner can’t see a patient, then sometimes the only option is referring them to the emergency clinic—which is also overwhelmed and understaffed,” Jackman said. “It’s a tough call for the receptionists, but one which has to be made in order not to impact other previously scheduled patients.”

Some local animal hospitals have started working together in an effort to direct pets that need urgent care to any veterinarian who may have room at that particular time.

“Unfortunately, COVID-19 has pushed the whole veterinary industry past its tipping point and has put a definite stress on our community and the mental health of our veterinary staff,” Jackman said.

These mental health concerns are a significant problem—and they were a problem well before the pandemic. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released in December 2018, showed that female veterinarians were 3.5 times as likely to die from suicide compared to the general population, while male veterinarians were 2.1 times as likely to die from suicide. Even in the best of times, vets and technicians must deal with stressful situations such as pet euthanasia, and clients being unable to afford the treatment needed to save their beloved furry friends.

Kittyland’s Woods said she would love to see more veterinarian care in the valley, including a clinic subsidized by the ASPCA and Humane Society of America.

“When (pet owners) get to a vet, they can’t afford it, because the prices are ridiculous,” Woods said.

So what can be done? Jackman said staffing structures must change, and people need to be encouraged to go to school to become veterinarians, vet techs and vet assistants.

In the meantime, Jackman said pet owners need to have empathy and patience toward veterinarians and their staffs—so they can continue to give quality care.

Cat Makino

Catherine Makino is a multimedia journalist who was based in Tokyo for 22 years. She wrote for media sources including Thomson Reuters, the San Francisco Chronicle, Inter Press Service, the Los Angeles...