Veterinary staffing crisis leaves Sonoma County pet owners desperate for timely emergency pet care

Last September, Kameren Owens of Santa Rosa came home from work to find her small terrier Lulu fussing with her backside. Owens took a look and noticed what looked like an abscess.

“I wasn’t going to be able to treat it and I wasn’t going to wait until the next day,” she said. “It happened so fast, I figured it could get a lot worse.”

Her regular vet’s office was closed so she called every after-hours pet care facility she could find. Most were either not open, despite being advertised as such, or they were booked solid with appointments.

The only “walk-in” option was the emergency animal hospital at Redwood Veterinary Clinic on Santa Rosa Avenue. There, she waited in her car with Lulu for six hours, alongside other worried pet owners waiting in their cars.

“It was really concerning to have an urgent need and not be able to get any help in the moment,” Owens said. “Abscesses can wait a few hours, but what if it was something more serious? I know there are some dogs that do have urgent needs frequently, I can’t imagine going through that on a regular basis.”

The experience Owens described — the inability to receive time pet care, particularly emergency treatment — has become increasingly acute. A crisis-level shortage of veterinary professionals, coupled with a pandemic-era spike in pet ownership, has led to long hours in pet hospital waiting rooms and parking lots.

In some cases, pet owners are being turned away because there simply aren’t enough veterinarians and support staff to meet the demand.

“We’re constantly overwhelmed,” said Dr. Kim Henry, an emergency veterinarian and the medical director of VCA PetCare East Veterinary Hospital in Santa Rosa.

“It’s something that is very trying on my staff but also on my clients,” she said. “There are so many emergencies, but there are just not enough places to go, not enough doctors.”

The result is wait times of four, six even eight hours to have a pet treated. With their pets next to them, people often wait in their cars in parking lots late into the night.

For vet staff, the emotional and psychological impact of being overwhelmed by too many sick cats and dogs or constantly dealing with worried or angry pet owners can be too much to bear. In the past few years, the experts say, staff have burned out, or worse, shut down.

Albert Escobedo, director of veterinary operations at Human Society of Sonoma County, called the latter “compassion fatigue.”

“That’s when there are so many sick animals that you realize you can’t help them all, you no longer feel compassion for them,” he said. “Burnout is linked to where you work — burnout is fixable, compassion fatigue is not fixable.”

“It’s a crisis, 100% — we cannot keep up with the demand,” Escobedo said.

Waiting hours

Last month, Sebastopol resident Cate Hutton noticed Edy, her domestic short hair cat, come home barely able to walk and in clear distress. Her eye lids were half shut. There were no visible wounds or blood, but she cried out with pain when picked up.

Worried that her cat had been hit by a car or attacked by an animal outside her rural property, she and her husband took Edy to VCA Animal Care Center in Rohnert Park, the closest 24 hour pet hospital.

Hutton said the receptionist told them the hospital was at capacity due to a lack of staff and handed them a list of local emergency veterinary facilities they could call. They then went to Redwood Veterinary Clinic in Santa Rosa and were told that facility was also at capacity, but a vet did come out to their car and look at Edy using the flashlight from her phone.

The vet said Edy’s condition was not an emergency, there were five people ahead of them and the wait time would be five hours. They were told that they should come back in the morning, at 7:30, a half hour before the clinic opened.

In the morning, after waiting another hour, Edy was finally treated and given antibiotics for a badly infected leg wound she had gotten from an apparent fight, Hutton said. Like many other pet owners, she said wait times for pet car have gotten much longer in recent years.

“You almost always had to wait but they didn’t turn you away,” Hutton said, adding that eight years ago, she brought a cat to a local pet hospital and was seen within an hour.

“The receptionist (this time) wouldn’t even do any intake or check on her,” she said. “The last time they just started the whole intake process right away. I was very surprised. The way she put it was like we just don’t have enough staff to properly take care of them.”

Hutton was among roughly two dozen local pet owners who responded to a Press Democrat query asking readers to describe their recent experiences seeking emergency car for their pets.

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