Pet Boom Puts Pressure on Vet Staff, Owners During Pandemic

By Cristina Rouvalis September 1, 2021
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Pet Boom Puts Pressure on Vet Staff, Owners During Pandemic

​During the pandemic and the start of the work-from-home era, many employees have filled their need for companionship by bonding with an adorable puppy under the desk or a purring lap cat.

But there's been a downside to the uptick in pet adoptions. Getting an appointment at the vet, especially at an emergency veterinarian hospital, has become increasingly difficult. And having to ask for time off to care for a pet—when the employer may not be sympathetic to this need—is frustrating employees who are already stressed out.

The veterinarian and vet-tech shortage has boomed over the past year. The ones who are filling in the gaps are facing angry, impatient pet owners who have to wait hours for appointments.

With COVID-19 protocols in effect, people seeking urgent veterinary treatment have been waiting with their pets in their cars for four hours or more, and tempers can flare. At one Pittsburgh location last month, a pregnant vet tech went to talk to someone waiting in the car, and a group of angry pet owners surrounded her and started screaming things like, "You're keeping my pet hostage." Office staff called the police to disperse the angry crowd, said Dr. Joey Kallem, an emergency veterinarian in Pittsburgh.

"It's out of control," Kallem said. Receptionists and vet techs, worn down by the belligerence, are leaving the field, leading to restricted hours, longer waits and further stress for pet owners.  

Time Off for Pets

One reason people are getting angry may be because it is stressful to negotiate time off to take care of sick animals—something many employers don't take seriously. 

"Employees may make excuses because the employer doesn't think a dog or cat or guinea pig is a big deal," said Tom Favale, a social worker and clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. "They might ask, 'Couldn't you have someone else bring the dog in?' They don't understand the bond."

Added Sandra Brackenridge, a veterinarian social worker who consults at practices nationwide: "Pets are members of the family. It is a close and significant relationship. The majority of pet owners sleep with their pets. They rely on their pets for all kinds of emotional needs. But most people don't talk about it because employers are not sympathetic if you take time off for a sick pet. [Then pet owners] put off care, and the condition worsens. Employers need to recognize the significance of the human-animal bond."

Ashley Cuttino, an employment lawyer at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart in Greenville, S.C., said, "From an HR perspective, there is nothing that mandates leave or time off for pets. But we are living in a time where anxiety and mental health issues are at an all-time high. I think the top word now should be 'grace.' This is a very trying time for everyone."

She recommends that employers become aware of the stresses brought on by the veterinary shortage and inform employees of protocols for taking time off for vet appointments, such as scheduling a vacation day or personal day. "We are in such a challenging labor market. This is one of those small things that an HR manager can do to make a huge difference in the loyalty of employees to the company."

Melissa White, SHRM-CP, an HR knowledge advisor for the Society of Human Resource Management, agreed. If a boss grants flexibility to an employee who gets stuck waiting at an emergency vet hospital, the employee will see that the company values them. In turn, the employee will be more likely to stay with the company and perform their best, White said.
Employees who don't have kids but do have a beloved dog or cat at home may feel slighted by the flexibility awarded to parents, she said. "Some employees may say, 'Their kid is always sick, and they are always gone, and I just need two hours off for the vet, but I can't get it. How is that fair?' Fairness is obviously in the eye of the beholder, but having those options for pets can be helpful in keeping those great employees."

Pet bereavement is another issue. While employees often receive time off to mourn relatives, they are usually expected to work the day after the devastating loss of a family pet.

Brackenridge believes pets should be included in bereavement leave, but she doubts that will happen at most companies. "If someone loses a pet, they are usually no good at work for the first couple of days."

As a veterinary social worker, she runs support groups for people who are grieving a lost pet. That grief could last a year, especially if they had frequent contact with their pet, as many have throughout the pandemic. 

White recommended that employees grieving a lost pet avail themselves to services such as counseling offered under an employee assistance program, which typically covers a range of issues such as stress and grief.

"If you saw an employee who was choked up about their dog dying and crying about it at work, as a sensitive employer, you could recommend they use [the EAP]."

Cristina Rouvalis is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.

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