Our Guide to Navigating the Veterinary Shortage

If you’re having difficulty securing a veterinary appointment for your dog or cat, you’re not alone. Here’s how to find your way through the current veterinary shortage, and ensure your companion is getting the care he needs.

Getting an appointment to see a veterinarian has become increasingly difficult for many dog and cat parents. You may be faced with a significant wait to see a veterinary specialist, and even your regular vet. Emergency clinics are frequently experiencing long wait times or are closing altogether due to staffing shortages. General practices are also dealing with long wait times or have stopped accepting new patients. As a dog or cat parent, this can feel really scary and unpredictable. There are a lot of reasons why this has happened, starting with the COVID-19 pandemic (see sidebar on page 54), and navigating this altered healthcare landscape can feel overwhelming. Fortunately, there are ways you can stay a step ahead of the veterinary shortage epidemic. Here are five steps you can take to help protect your dog or cat during this time of uncertainty.

CREATE A RELATIONSHIP WITH MORE THAN ONE VETERINARY HOSPITAL

Many people are hesitant to do this for fear they will damage the relationship with their primary veterinarian. However, most veterinarians will understand the desire to grow your dog or cat’s medical team, and feel guilt when they can’t see your animal right away. If your dog or cat has a complicated illness, or your veterinarian has suggested you seek the opinion and care of a veterinary specialist, add one to your team. The addition of another veterinarian and facility helps ensure that your animal will get medical care when needed.

Hint: Many specialists are booking weeks to months ahead, so be sure to schedule an appointment as soon as your veterinarian recommends a second opinion.

2. STAY CURRENT WITH YOUR ANIMAL’S EXAMS, BLOODWORK AND PREVENTIVE CARE

Staying up to date with your dog or cat’s physical examinations makes it easier for your veterinarian to call in prescriptions or see your animal via telemedicine. Completing annual or biannual blood work, even if your companion is healthy, may help detect disease before a health crisis occurs. This also gives your veterinarian historical data if your dog or cat does get sick.

3. BE PROACTIVE WITH PRESCRIPTIONS

Veterinary offices and pharmacies are processing more prescriptions with less staff. It may take days to fill a prescription, so if your dog or cat is taking any kind of medication, ask your veterinarian to prescribe at least three months’ worth at a time to decrease the number of refills needed. If you use a human pharmacy for your dog or cat’s medications, ask to enroll in automatic refills. Initiate the refill process seven to ten days ahead of the time you need the medication.

Hint: The same applies for any supplements or natural remedies your vet has recommended for your dog or cat — make sure you keep a good supply on hand and don’t wait until you’re out before reordering from your veterinarian or visiting the health food store.

4. KEEP A LIST OF EMERGENCY CLINICS IN YOUR AREA

If your dog or cat gets sick after hours, or your veterinarian is fully booked, it’s important to have several back- up plans in place. Keep a list of additional veterinary clinics and emergency clinics in your area. Creating a list of names, numbers and addresses will keep you focused and organized in an urgent or distressing situation.

Hint: Call the clinic before driving your animal to the facility, to ensure they are open and can see your dog or cat.

Many emergency clinics will give you an estimated wait time once you arrive. If your animal is beginning to show symptoms and you are not quite sure if he needs to be seen, start calling the list of clinics to find out who can see him if necessary, so you can be prepared.

5. BECOME AN EXPERT AT MONITORING YOUR ANIMAL AT HOME

Understanding how to evaluate your dog or cat and take her vital signs at home is very empowering. Here are several parameters you can record at home that will help decide if she needs emergency care.

A. Heart rate: The normal heart rate of your animal can vary based on her size and health status. For cats and small dogs, 120-180 bpm (beats per minute) is normal. For medium-sized dogs, 70-90 bpm is average. For large dogs, 50-80 bpm is normal.

The best way to take your animal’s heart rate is by accessing the pulse inside her back leg. You can also place a hand on her chest, directly behind the front leg on the left side. Set a ten-second timer and count the number of beats. Take that number and multiply it by six to get the number of beats per minute.

Taking your animal’s heart rate when she’s healthy can help you know what is normal for her. A very high heart rate indicates that she’s in some kind of distress and should be seen by a vet. If she has a very low heart rate and is lethargic, emergency care should be sought.

B. Respiratory rate: The number of breaths your animal takes each minute can help you detect distress. Cats and dogs generally take ten to 30 breaths per minute (bpm). To determine your animal’s respiratory rate, count the number of breaths he takes in 15 seconds and multiply that number by four.

Hint: Measuring his respiratory rate at different times of day can be helpful.

Observing how much effort it takes to breathe in and out is also an important factor to report to your veterinarian. Fast respiratory rates and labored breathing can indicate that your animal is distressed or is having trouble breathing.

C. Temperature: This may be a difficult measurement to obtain. The most accurate way to get your dog or cat’s temperature is through a rectal reading. You will need a fast-reading oral thermometer and some water-based lubricant. A normal cat or dog’s temperature lies between 99.5°F and 102.5°F.

D. Gum color: Your animal’s gums should be pink in color. Some cats and dogs have pigmented (black gums); while this is a normal variation, gum color can only be assessed with pink gums. To check for gum color, lift your animal’s lip on the side of his mouth, away from the nose. Colors that indicate he may need to be seen by a veterinarian include very pale pink, a purple or blue tint, or a brick red color. Knowing your animal’s normal gum color when healthy can help with this assessment.

We are living in unprecedented times, and adjusting to new and changing circumstances. Developing a relationship with your veterinarian, technicians and reception staff can help your dog or cat get seen as quickly as possible. Be proactive, and remember that you are your animal’s best medical advocate, especially in the current veterinary climate.

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