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Sick Pets, Screaming Clients: The Life of a Veterinarian During COVID-19

Here are some of my observations about the realities of working as a veterinarian during the COVID-19 pandemic. (And, yes, it’s all true.)

veterinarian during covid-19
This is a stressful time for everyone. I’ve had clients almost come to blows outside the vet clinic. Illustrations: Shutterstock

During the current COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, no corner of daily life remains untouched.

As we all struggle to adjust to a “new normal,” this means doing our best under difficult circumstances. The realities for vets and pets are far-reaching and brought home to us on a daily basis.

Here are some observations about the realities of a veterinary clinic, working under the COVID-19 lockdown. First, to set the scene …

Severe Staff Shortages

I work near London, in a coronavirus hot spot. The practice comprises 4 clinics, 8 veterinarians and a large team of amazing ancillary staff.

At the time of writing, the number of staff able to work is a fraction of normal, at about one-quarter. For example, out of 8 vets last week, only 3 were able to work; the remainder were sick with coronavirus or self-isolating due to family illness.

However, the vital nonclinical staff are hit even harder. Many are in at-risk groups with underlying health problems or live with vulnerable people.

In practical terms, this means for the first 2 weeks of lockdown, there was sufficient staff to open only 2 of the 4 clinics.

Emergencies Only

Given reduced staff numbers, drugs diverted to human hospitals and movement restrictions, this means vets are seeing only emergencies or urgent cases.

As Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, explained in her excellent article “Going to the Vet During COVID-19: Is It Essential?”, there are many reason why this is appropriate, such as:

  • Government guidelines on social distancing, staying at home and the movement of people so as to reduce the spread of infection
  • Preserving personal protection equipment for use of in human hospitals
  • Prioritizing oxygen supplies and surgical consumables to human hospitals
  • Decreasing the strain on drug supply networks and diverting vital drugs to people

During this crisis, veterinarians are doing their best to meet the needs of our patients, but this isn’t easy.

Lockdown Restrictions

To protect staff and clients, vet clinics have to work under lockdown restrictions. This goes against the instincts of a caring profession, but includes:

  • Keep the waiting room door locked
  • No clients allowed on the premises (even for euthanasia)
  • Clients wait in their vehicle and phone on arrival
  • Take the patient history over the phone and admit the pet without their people
  • Video consults
  • Cease all surgical procedures, except for emergency surgery

Working under such restrictions brings an interesting set of challenges. Here is a taste of what it has been like over the past 2 weeks, working as a veterinarian during the COVID-19 lockdown …

The Life of a Veterinarian During COVID-19

Panic-Buying Pet Supplies

In much of the world, people have been panic-buying toilet paper. The supermarket shelves were bare of the soft square-stuff for a while, with each sheet seemingly more valuable than paper money.

The panic-buy pet equivalents are pet food and flea products.

Pet food is understandable, because no one wants their pet to go hungry. But why flea products, you might ask?

Well, as a receptionist said to me, “I wish I had a pound for every client who said things are bad enough already, without the dog or cat getting fleas.”

Fair enough! Happily, both pet food and flea preventives are in good supply.

Screaming Pet Parents

Veterinarians are bound by strict rules when prescribing medications. This is to avoid situations where a drug does the pet more harm than good.

During these difficult times, our governing body here in the United Kingdom, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), has made concessions to these strict rules so that pets in need can still get their prescriptions. However, these compromises can be stretched only so far without endangering patient health.

For example, vets can prescribe medications only to animals “under their care.” This means a vet must be aware of that individual pet’s current health, because it might be affected by the medication.

This means pets on permanent medication need to get checked every few months or so. For flea products, the interval can be longer. However, if the patient hasn’t been seen for several years, they are well outside this “under care” banner. It would be irresponsible to prescribe for these animals.

This reality provoked the worst side of human nature for one such absentee pet parent.

They phoned to request flea products for their cat (not seen for years). When this request was apologetically declined, the person screamed over the phone and accused the vet tech of “not caring.”

This was wrong on many levels — not least because the vet tech was the “last one standing” on the nursing team that day, doing an amazing job of keeping sick patients comfortable and safe.

This is a frustrating time for people. We understand that. But this doesn’t make it OK to vent at staff over the phone.

Fighting in the Parking Lot

I’ve had clients almost come to blows outside in the vet clinic parking lot.

The reason? Client B thought Client A was taking too long talking to the vet!

I heard the verbal exchange over the phone, and it was scary stuff. Incredible, given that Client A was an elderly woman anxiously listening to an update on her sick canine companion.

It’s not all bad, though.

I’ve seen a waiting person shuffle well back from the door, head bowed, to give an upset pet parent space to cry after receiving bad news. The quiet respect, understanding and waves of empathy from those nearby — I hope these things were in some small way a comfort to that grieving pet parent.

Bickering by Video

Video consults can be interesting … for the wrong reasons.

So far, via the video link I’ve witnessed 2 domestic spats: One between husband and wife, and the other a mother bickering with her teenage daughter.

If you book a video consult, remember that the vet can see and hear everything … and while remotely assessing a pet’s health, they really don’t want to see family arguments.

On the plus side, there have been amazing people grateful for the care and attention their pet received. Like the client whose son’s support dog I treated via a video link, who then emailed a wonderful message of support and thanks.

Veterinarian during COVID-19

“I Need It Now!”

The reality is vet clinics are seeing only emergencies for a reason.

An example of skewed priorities is the woman who elbowed her way into the waiting room when a staff member unlocked the door to hand back a patient to one of our clients.

The startled staff member calmly explained that the entrance was for emergencies only and the public wasn’t allowed inside. The woman paused momentarily and then retorted: “But this IS an emergency.”

“Oh. What seems to be the problem?”

“My dog has poop in her fur. And I need it trimmed out now!”

This gives a whole new meaning to the word “emergency.”

Please Phone for Advice

We encourage pet parents to phone for advice.

Please try to be accurate about what’s worrying you. Please don’t exaggerate the symptoms to get your pet seen. If the case is urgent, that animal will be treated.

For example, a cat sneezing several times a day does not strictly count as “breathing difficulties.”

The occasional sneeze is not life-threatening, especially when the cat is otherwise well. In contrast, a resting cat whose mouth is open, gasping for air does need urgent attention.

Working as a veterinarian during COVID-19 pandemic

Human Kindness

Luckily, it’s not all bad here at the vet clinic during COVID-19. There are hourly reminders of exceptional kindness — such as those transporting sick pets for vulnerable neighbors and the volunteers delivering pet medications.

There’s also the palpable love that people have for their pets, which sees vulnerable people prepared to venture out during the pandemic to get them cared for.

And then there’s the dedication of all the clinic staff working long shifts under testing conditions.

The truth is for every case of odd behavior, this is balanced with good. The majority of clients are sensible, to the point that it’s a worry some people aren’t asking for help when their animals need to be seen.

So please, if you are worried, don’t hesitate to contact the vet. In these extraordinary times, they are still at work — ready to give advice and see those urgent cases.

But help the professionals help you by following a few simple rules:

  • Write a list of your pet’s symptoms before calling.
  • Where appropriate, take a quick video of the limp or a photo of the laceration. You can email this to the vet to decide what must be done.
  • When you go to the clinic, remember to bring a fully charged cellphone. (Two clients forgot their phones recently, in one day alone. We need to talk with you by phone to discuss treatment and get your consent.)
  • Please be patient. Everything is taking much longer than usual.
  • Respect social distancing.

This way, the risk of spreading the coronavirus is reduced while sick pets still get the help they need.

Keep safe, pet lovers — and here’s to normal life resuming as soon as possible. Woofs, wags and long runs in the park to that!


vet-cross60pThis pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed April 16, 2020.

If you have questions or concerns, call your vet, who is best equipped to ensure the health and well-being of your pet. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. See additional information.