(Editor’s Note, Feb. 20, 2021: Clarification about pet adoption rates during Covid-19 added.)
When Madonna Casini’s 8-year old Labrador bull terrier started throwing up and having severe diarrhea last October, she tried to get her seen at Burton Creek Veterinary Clinic in Tahoe City, a few minutes from her house, but they couldn’t fit her in for a week. So Casini took Jade to Animal Medical Center of Reno, where the doctor prescribed medication that improved Jade’s condition. Unfortunately, a few days later the symptoms returned and the dog started having seizures. Casini called every vet on the North Shore and in Truckee but could not get an appointment. She was on her way to the vet in Reno when Jade passed away in Casini’s arms in the back of the car near Truckee. After cradling her beloved pet while she sobbed, Casini bathed her in the Truckee River before returning home.
“We thought we were doing the right thing [driving her to Reno],” said Casini, who brought Jade’s body back to Reno the next day for cremation. The cause of death was liver failure.
Casini is not alone in facing yet another new challenge created by the pandemic — local veterinarians are busier than ever. This is due to a perfect storm of factors brought on by the start of lockdown last spring: Tahoe/Truckee experienced an increase in full-time residents as people fled the city, vet offices have lost efficiency with curbside service and staff impacted by COVID-19 exposure, and pet adoptions have spiked across the nation. All of this has contributed to a logjam at veterinarian offices in the region and beyond.
Dr. India Vannini, the chief medical officer at Donner Truckee Veterinary Hospital, said that her clinic has been three to five times as busy as in normal years since the day California went into lockdown last March. One reason she cites for this is that more people have moved to the area.
“On any given day, at least 50% of clients are new clients, up from 10 to 20% in a regular period,” Vannini said. “It’s been really hard on all the clinics here; a lot of people are having trouble getting into their regular vet.”
Sierra Pet Clinic in Truckee is seeing similar numbers. Owner Dr. Twylah Sperka reported her office is 20% busier. When her regular customers started complaining last spring that they couldn’t get an appointment, she began setting aside a few hours every day for longtime clients. Still, that doesn’t even come close to solving the problem.
“The extra hours may be filled up by 9 a.m., yet people still need to come in for emergencies,” said Sperka, who noted that they are booking out one to two weeks for regular appointments and over a month for surgeries. “It gets challenging … If it’s something urgent but we are too booked to see them, I send them somewhere else, but a lot of places are not even seeing new clients.”
That’s the case with Tahoe Integrative Veterinary Care, which is no longer taking new clients unless it’s for rehab or acupuncture.
“We have stopped taking new clients because I can’t fit in my existing clients,” said owner Dr. Wendy Robinson, who is booking out three to four weeks, about twice as far as pre-pandemic times. “Our clientele could be increased by at least 25% if I took everyone who called me, if not more.”
Another consequence of the pandemic that has made vet offices less efficient is that pet owners are no longer allowed inside clinics. This uses up valuable staff time as clients call when they arrive, then a staff member has to go outside to collect the animal, and later bring the pet back out after the exam.
“It takes twice as long to get through one animal,” according to Vannini.
Because of these new protocols, Robinson said her phone never stops ringing. In addition to scheduling, people now have to call when they arrive and to pick up medications.
“If we could go back to operations as normal it would help because we can operate more efficiently,” she explained. “It just feels crazy, like we are constantly going, going and not really getting anywhere. We never get caught up.”
Another issue is, of course, the pandemic itself. Burton Creek had to shut down in November for two weeks due to possible staff COVID exposure, which created a backlog. Tahoe Integrative Veterinary Care is short two employees because they are high risk and don’t feel safe returning to work. None of this is unique to Tahoe/Truckee.
“There is a worldwide vet problem,” Robinson said. “Everyone is overwhelmed, over capacity, people are available to come in more, people see what’s going on with pets more because they are home.”
Another major reason why vets have seen an increase in customers is that more people are adopting pets. According to the Washington Post, Shelter Animals Count, which runs a database that tracks shelter and rescue activity, reported that pet adoptions rose 15 percent in 2020. The Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe reports that while they are not adopting out more animals than in past years, pets are getting scooped up much faster once they are up for adoption. According to Executive Director Stephanie Nistler, in 2019 the average length of stay for animals in the shelter was 11 days. Now it’s around three days.
“What’s different this year  is the urgency people have felt toward adopting pets,” she explained. “Whenever we post an animal for adoption, we have a large number of people interested in the animal.”
This is especially true for puppies. Vannini calls this phenomenon the COVID Puppy Syndrome.
“Everybody has gotten a puppy and continues to get a puppy,” she said. “I haven’t worked a day where we don’t see a new puppy. Today I saw three.”
Before the pandemic, Vannini would have one puppy about every other week come in. Currently she is tending to at minimum two a day. Sierra Pet Clinic reports an upsurge in puppies as well. The record was six puppy appointments on a single day at the end of December, about twice as many as normal.
“It seems like a lot of people are getting COVID companions,” remarked Sperka.
While all vets understand clients’ frustrations if they can’t get an appointment, they say it’s important to practice patience in these difficult times.
“I have been working days when I am still up at midnight, still writing records. COVID is such a hard time for everybody,” Vannini shared. “There is nothing normal about the world we are in right now. We all have to remember to be kind.”