Coachella Valley pet owners risk being turned away during emergencies when minutes matter most.
A nationwide shortage of veterinarians has forced the valley's only 24/7 emergency pet emergency hospital to close at certain times.
Melissa Hull-White and her family loved their long-haired terrier Kobe for 13 years. But on April 15th, things took a turn for the worse.
"My husband wakes me up in the middle of the night and says Kobe is laying on the floor having really bad stomach cramps," said Hull-White
At 3 in the morning, she called the only local 24/7 pet emergency hospital, the VCA Valley Animal Medical Center in Indio.
"They said we're sorry, we no longer have an overnight vet. That they would refer us to Redlands," said Hull-White. "We were about five minutes away from the exit to Redlands, and he died."
The closest emergency options are more than an hour away in Ontario, Murrieta, and Redlands.
"Your pets come and go, but when they die in your arms, and there's nothing you can do about it, you know, it puts a whole new swing on things," said Hull-White.
The VCA Medical Center in Indio closes on certain nights when it doesn't have an overnight vet. The center has been posting its temporary closures on its Facebook page.
Rocio Gomez found that out after her pug Valentino got stung on a walk. She immediately called the local emergency hospital.
"I think the girl on the phone felt bad because she heard how desperate we were. And she finally said well, we don't have an overnight vet. So there's no one in the valley that will service you," said Gomez.
Dr. Doug Kunz, medical director at the VCA Desert Animal Hospital in Palm Springs, has been a vet in the valley for over 45 years. He said it's an industry shortage, unlike anything he's ever seen. One national vet chain says the U.S. will need 41,000 more vets by 2030 to meet demand.
"It's a national problem," said Kunz. "Emergency clinics have a hard time staying fully staffed. And so, actually, at present, there are days that there isn't a veterinarian there. And those emergencies are reflected back to us."
The American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA) said between January 2019 and May 2021; there were 18 positions open for every veterinarian seeking a job. And the pandemic only made things worse.
"With COVID, those statistics suggest that one in three Americans adopted pets during the pandemic. And consequently, that generated a lot more demand for veterinary services," said Kunz.
The AVMA said multiple factors are to blame: the disruption of the pandemic to practice operations, declining productivity, and higher turnover, all causing burnout.
"There are incentives, trying to get veterinarians to come here," said Kunz.
With the only 24/7 animal ER in the valley not fully staffed, pet owners are left with few options.
"Preventative care is so important that if [pet owners] practice good preventative care for their pets, often the emergencies don't happen," said Kunz. "Be prepared that if there isn't anyone available, you may have to travel outside the valley until this shortage is resolved."
You can also ask if your veterinary hospital offers tele-triage or other virtual care options. For example, through the MyVCA app, existing VCA clients can access 24/7 live chat with licensed vets to help answer questions and offer advice. Dr. Kunz said he expects to have the emergency hospital fully staffed by the fall.
"If you have an emergency, go right away. Don't wait that extra 15 minutes to see if he gets better or doesn't get better because 15 minutes might have saved Kobe," said Hull-White.
According to VCA Animal Hospitals, here are things pet owners can do to deal with the current veterinarian crisis:
- Establish a relationship with a vet. Establishing a relationship with a veterinary practice means your pet will have a team to help that is familiar with his or her medical history if something happens. Just like your own health, don’t wait until something goes wrong to visit your vet.
- Book appointments in advance when possible. The best appointments to book early include annual and semi-annual wellness check-ups, vaccinations, dental cleanings, and elective surgeries. If you’re unsure which appointments to schedule, ask your vet.
- Have a financial plan. Veterinary care can often be expensive (especially emergency care), just like human health care. Owners should consider the total cost of caring for a pet and create an emergency fund to use should something happen to your pet. Purchasing pet insurance is another tool that can help lighten the financial load.
- Know where to go for backup care. It’s important to know where you can take your pet in case of an emergency. Know where several veterinary clinics are in your area just in case your hospital of choice is unable to see you. You can also ask if your veterinary hospital offers tele-triage or other virtual care options.
- Be patient. Remember that caring for pets is not just a career but usually a passion for veterinarian professionals. They are working to ensure pets receive world-class care and that clients receive the experience they deserve and expect, even with the increased patient load.
Telehealth resources for pet owners:
- Vetster connects pet owners to thousands of licensed veterinarians ready to provide online vet services through video chat appointments 24/7.
- Cost: varies by practice
- Pawp is a 24/7 online vet that provides continuous virtual care that's personalized for your pet's long-term health goals and outcomes.
- Cost: $99 a year, optional $14 per month for an emergency fund
- On-demand pet care from a licensed expert with a Chewy account. Virtual consults supplement clinic visits; Chewy does not prescribe or diagnose. You are advised by a licensed veterinary team and leave with a personalized consult report.
- Cost: If you don't want to sign up for Chewy's Autoship, you can pay $15 for on-demand chats or $20 for a scheduled video call.
- Airvet aims to connect you with an expert immediately, either for emergencies or to get a question answered.
- Cost: $30 a month or $49 for one video chat.
- 24/7 Live Chat with a licensed veterinary professional is free for VCA clients through the myVCA mobile app, available at Apple's App Store and Google Play.
According to a spokesperson from the VCA, the company is working to get more people into the field and retain them:
- How is the VCA helping people already in the field?
- The VCA has invested in benefits and expanded a number of services for its associates. One benefit rolled out nationwide last year is free access to mental health support: 12 employer-paid sessions with mental health professionals.
- Mentorship programs are being offered to help newer doctors gain confidence and valuable skills. There’s an ER-specific program where a newer doctor is partnered with an experienced practitioner for six months.
- How is the VCA helping people entering the field?
- Earlier this year, VCA increased the salary for interns to make continuing education for veterinary specialists (like those who chose to work in ER).