Andrea Bloom brings her 12-year-old short-haired cat Toni to a checkup at Campus Veterinary Clinic in Berkeley on Friday, Jan. 7., 2021. Credit: Zac Farber

“Worse than no help at all!”

“I was the fifth person who walked out in frustration during that time.”

“My cat is going to die…. Vampires! I hope the owner suffers 10x the amount my cat has!”

These are one-star Google reviews people have left in the past several months for Berkeley veterinary clinics. Granted, some folks just like to complain. But this negativity reflects a real disgruntlement among many pet owners over appointment backlogs, arbitrary-seeming cancellations, and waits that last hours. As one reviewer opined: “This is the first time that it takes more time to be seen by a vet than a doctor at a hospital in the Bay Area!”

Perhaps people would retract their claws a bit if they knew what COVID-19’s done to the vet industry. 

“I think it’s easy to look at your local restaurant and understand what they’ve been going through — you see the parklet, the to-go orders,” says Jeffrey Zerwekh, executive director of Berkeley Humane. “It’s a little harder to understand the impact on all of the veterinary medical services. But we’ve had the same challenges as everyone else – trying to make sure we have enough supplies, working with reduced staff levels, having to implement all the COVID safety protocols.”

There’s a perception clinics are overburdened because people in lockdown adopted boatloads of animals out of boredom, desire for companionship or desperation to keep at-home children occupied. In fact, U.S. shelter adoptions in 2020 dropped to the lowest point in five years, due to shelters limiting operations for COVID-19 safety and people being less willing to give up their existing pets, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

What seems to be the case is people are spending more time with their animals, and are more likely to notice when their chihuahua develops a limp or their kitty develops disturbingly corrosive breath.

“They’re more engaged with them. So they’re seeing things that are going on and coming in more readily than they might have when they were working eight hours a day, then coming home to make dinner and get the homework done and kids to bed,” says Beth Klapstein, president of the California Veterinary Medical Association in Sacramento.

You can’t just roll up to a vet and expect to get seen, though. At Codornices Veterinary Clinic, an Albany operation that serves many in Berkeley, pet owners pull into the parking lot and phone a staffer.

“Before COVID, owners would come in to talk face-to-face and we did one appointment every 20 minutes,” says associate veterinarian David Grant. “Once COVID hit, and we decided to close our doors to the public, we have to have staff members go out in the parking lot and hunt around to find the owner’s vehicle. They bring the animal into the clinic and, yada yada, this just slows everything down. Instead of 20-minute appointments, we’re doing 40-minute appointments.”

With time cut in half, the vet staff spends a large chunk of every day triaging appointments to prioritize dire cases like abscessed teeth and enlarging tumors. That can lead to chagrin among clients seeking routine things like wellness exams or vaccinations. “Sometimes we have a non-urgent appointment get rescheduled two or three times,” says Grant. “Then all of a sudden we have another client who’s very frustrated with us – maybe we inadvertently called them for the third time, not realizing we already rescheduled them twice.”

As with doctors and nurses operating during the pandemic, burnout can strike hospital veterinarians. Grant flirts with it daily, responding to a flood of electronic communications regarding distanced patient care that’s “gotten four, six, eight times worse since COVID.”

“Seven or eight o’ clock, I’ll be all finished. Then I check my message box and it’s just overflowing with client emails with photos and videos attached for me to diagnose,” he says. “I usually do it on my day off. My wife is fed up with me, because I’ve basically been unavailable to my family for the last two years because I’m either working or, if I’m at home, I’m on my laptop.”

Vets that follow the house-call model have their own issues. Mariko Soto, owner of Berkeley Feline Vet, has limited the number of patients she sees due to the concern of exposing her family to COVID-19.

“I used to do a lot of in-home euthanasia, which I’ve pretty much stopped because that is a time when everyone needs to gather really closely around the pet, everyone is crying, and there’s a lot of flinging of bodily fluids, which I was not comfortable with,” she says. “It’s disappointing because it really is one of the most beautiful things you can do for a cat – just let them pass at home.”

Across the entire industry, staffing remains dismal. In November, the Berkeley Dog and Cat Hospital downgraded from 24-hour emergency care to 14-hour urgent care because it couldn’t find enough people to work every shift. “[O]ur commitment to quality of care has led us to narrow our reach at this time to ensure we can continue to provide the best care possible to our clients and their beloved pets,” the hospital informed customers via email.

It also cut down on the services it provides for exotic animals – which have included lizards, tarantulas, snakes, sugar gliders, and even giant tortoises – and eliminated its boarding operations. “We’re closing the boarding facility because it’s been at much lower capacity since COVID began,” an operations manager told Berkeleyside at the time. “People are staying home or doing less traveling.” 

There were roughly 13 positions in veterinary medicine open last spring – for doctors, technicians and staff – for every person seeking a vet-related job. What’s behind all the unfilled positions? In some cases, people left their jobs to look after family at the start of the pandemic and haven’t returned. But to hear vets tell it, the profession has always been grueling and plagued with attrition.

“I think the pandemic has just exacerbated an existing problem which is it’s very hard for people to stay in this field,” says Soto. “Look at veterinarians: We go to school for a long time and we are very driven to do this. … But it’s not a very financially rewarding field for anyone. When it comes down to it, do I risk my health and safety versus do I go find another job? Is it worth taking these terrible wages if I don’t feel safe, if people are being abusive toward me?”

A sign at Oakvet in West Oakland warns clients not to throw objects or bring weapons into the clinic. Credit: John Metcalfe

Abusive – it does happen. “People are so frustrated trying to find service and then having to wait,” says Klapstein. “They care about their animals. Everybody knows they’re not actually lashing out at you personally – it’s just a frustrating situation.”

“I’ve had people threaten violence against me; my best friend was stalked,” says Soto. She’s careful to note that most clients are pleasant, but the ones who are nasty might not know the weight they’re piling on.

“This is a profession that is plagued with a lot of sadness. Veterinarians are very prone to death by suicide,” she says. “That is a well-known phenomenon that a lot of clients don’t realize they’re adding to. So when you look at the stress of a pandemic, at people who are coming to work every day already feeling this tremendous burden – emotionally, financially – it all just adds up.”

In these complicated times, what’s the best way for pet owners and vets to solve what’s actually important – like, finding out if Wolfie ate that tennis ball?

If it’s not urgent, there are local clinics where folks can at least get caught up on pet vaccines while waiting to establish care elsewhere. Berkeley Humane, for instance, has greatly expanded its Spay the Bay program that offers low-cost vaccine drop-ins, spay/neuter services, and microchipping. There are also several emergency hospitals in the Bay Area that provide 24-hour care – you just need to work the phone long enough to get a spot.

“Keep calling around until you find somewhere that can take you, and if they tell you it’s going to be a long wait, you just have to do the wait,” says Klapstein. Also don’t wait until the last minute, because you might be able to get in on Thursday but by the time you hit Friday or Saturday, clinics are usually overwhelmed. “I’ve had animals come to me on Monday morning very sick, much more sick than they were on Friday.”

“It doesn’t help to get frustrated,” she adds. “Just be kind and keep working with each other.”

John Metcalfe is an Oakland-based freelance reporter who's written for Berkeleyside, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Atlantic. He enjoys covering science, climate and weather, and urban...