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‘PANDEMIC PUPS’

Watch now: Central Illinois veterinarians overbooked in wake of 'pandemic pups'

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As more people stay home and adopt pets, veterinarians struggling to keep up.

NORMAL — Bellatrix and all of her puppy energy have only been in Bill Perry’s life for 10 months, but she’s already required a few veterinary visits.

“She was just better at finding things that were not good for her,” said Perry, a biologist from Normal who brings the 14-month-old Labrador mix out to the field with him. “It’s like having a small child and puppy-proofing the house. ... She is so much better now.”

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Bellatrix, a 14-month-old Labrador mix, digs while out in the field with her owner Bill Perry in this undated photo.

Bellatrix has gotten the treatment she needs, but an influx of new pets has pushed veterinary clinics and animal hospitals in Central Illinois and nationwide to become overloaded as factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic compounded an existing veterinarian shortage.

“Illinois was already experiencing a shortage of veterinarians prior to the pandemic, so I think the weight of the backlog and the weight of having new clients and new patients has been heavier than usual,” said Colleen Lewis, president of the Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association.

The rate of dog and cat adoptions soared in 2020 as more people worked from home and had time to spend with a new pet. Now those pets “are growing up and it’s that time when they are needing that care, having to be spayed or neutered or any type of surgeries,” said Kristin Heiden, a veterinarian at Bortell Animal Hospital in Bloomington, explaining that elective surgeries were paused earlier in the pandemic.

Perry was among those who adopted a “pandemic pup,” realizing “how much I needed a companion and someone to give balance to my life.”

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Normal resident Bill Perry's puppy Bellatrix runs toward him in this undated photo.

Bellatrix gave him that balance, but Perry also had two cats at home, Gia and Grimalkin — who is “half cat, half demon, and the vet agrees,” Perry said with a laugh.

SmartVet, an animal hospital and mobile vet service in Normal, was “exceptional at getting us in for those required vaccinations (for all three) and getting her spayed,” though “sometimes at odd hours, but they even would stay late sometimes to make sure she’s taken care of,” Perry said.

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Veterinarian Laura Peterson of SmartVet, 1537 Fort Jesse Road, Normal, talks with her dog, Tessa, as she describes the increase in clients with fewer veterinarians available to treat them in the Twin Cities.

Perry said he has been able to keep his animals on track with vaccinations, but for routine wellness checks and exams, they’ve had to wait, as most local clinics have their schedules booked out for weeks, if not months.

“Unfortunately, recently we’ve been booked out three to four weeks for exams and only able to get in our extremely emergent things on the same day,” Heiden said.

Laura Peterson, a veterinarian at SmartVet, said they’ve tried to keep half of each day open for sick pets while also catching up on routine exams and visits that pet owners put off last year.

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Veterinarian Laura Peterson of SmartVet, 1537 Fort Jesse Road, Normal, talks with her dog, Tessa, as she describes the increase in clients with fewer veterinarians available to treat them in the Twin Cities.

“(If) they need to be seen that same day, we can,” she said. “I think our scheduling creates a little bit of chaos, too, but we never want to turn down a sick pet. And we are working in those preventative care exams as we can, but we’re booking out up to a couple months in advance right now.”

Peterson noted that because pet owners have spent more time with their pets in recent months, they have become more attentive, noticing things they ordinarily wouldn’t and finding more reasons to bring their pets to the vet.

“People that are normally gone all the time that rarely saw their cats and dogs, they were noticing a change in appetite, a change in water consumption, just paying way more attention to them because they’re home all the time,” she said.

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Miles, a cocker spaniel mix, belongs to veterinarian Laura Peterson of SmartVet, 1537 Fort Jesse Road, Normal, as she talks about how fewer veterinarians are available to treat pets in the Twin Cities.

Despite being busy, veterinarians hope pet owners will call sooner rather than later if they have questions or if their pet is sick.

“It’s easier to get ahead of a problem,” Peterson said. “Seek professional advice instead of Dr. Google.”

But catching up on existing patients’ needs and meeting new patients this summer — already the industry’s busiest season — is taking a toll on the area’s limited number of veterinarians.

Lewis said she’s seeing high numbers of veterinarians getting burned out and wanting to leave the profession, “which is really sad that it’s come to that, where some of our colleagues are overworked and having difficulty coping with the demands that our profession is placing on them.”

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Bellatrix, a 14-month-old Labrador mix, lays in a field as her owner Bill Perry works.

Peterson said at SmartVet they have three veterinarians, but enough clients for a four-doctor practice, since their fourth vet left for a job in a different city.

“Every vet clinic is so crazy, they want that extra help and can’t find it. We’ve been interviewing on and off for a year trying to get a vet here. It’s the health care profession right now; it’s chaotic,” she said, noting she can’t imagine working in human health care right now.

Watch now: Post-COVID life unleashed anxiety for these Bloomington-Normal pets

“You’re burnt out and you need vacation, but if you take vacation, then you know you’re putting the other vet in a terrible spot. Like you feel guilty for taking a vacation, but you should never feel that way.”

The surge doesn’t seem to show any signs of slowing down, but Lewis said seeing larger classes graduate from vet schools “has a lot of promise.”

“It’s going to be a long wait until next spring when we get our new graduates coming out of vet school, but hopefully that’ll continue to catch up,” she said.

Heiden, who only had about 10 minutes to talk on her lunch break, said veterinarians in Bloomington-Normal and across the state are asking pet owners to have patience and “know that we are absolutely trying our darndest, and if we say that we don’t have an appointment, it’s because, honestly, we are so stretched thin that we cannot fit anything else in. We double-book, we overbook. … If we’re saying we can’t see them, it’s not just because we don’t want to. Because I can promise we definitely want to, it’s just that we are physically incapable of seeing any more at a time.”

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Bellatrix rides shotgun in her owner Bill Perry's vehicle in this undated photo.


Contact Kelsey Watznauer at (309) 820-3254. Follow her on Twitter: @kwatznauer.

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