Getting pets seen promptly by a veterinarian has proven to be a difficult task in central Maine recently. Staffing shortages afflicting much of the U.S. labor market is being seen in veterinary services also and is delaying medical care for our furry (or feathered or scaly) friends.

Even finding veterinary clinics that are accepting new customers can be a chore. Many are reducing hours or taking other steps to account for the staffing shortfall brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors.

The pandemic also complicated matters for clinics because pet adoption rates have shot up, at least in part due to people in isolation seeking an animal companion. That means more people have a pet in need of veterinary care.

But this is happening as the region sees a declining number of veterinarians in recent years. Vets and support staff like vet technicians have left the field due to concerns over the pandemic, and others have reduced hours because of stress and being burnt out.

“I try to put myself in the shoes of our pet parents,” said Dr. Matt Townsend, a former president of both the Maine Veterinary Medical Association and the New England Veterinary Medical Association.

He described the problem as a supply-and-demand issue. In addition to general practice veterinarians, relief veterinarians — those who bounce between clinics to fill in vacancies — are in short supply, too, he said.


And yet another factor is a profession that’s seeing more female vets than male ones, he said, and many of these women tend to be the caregivers in their family, so when a day care closes or another problem arises then they have to cut into their work schedule to respond.

Townsend sold his veterinarian office, Hometown Veterinary Care in Fairfield, to Rarebreed Veterinary Medical Partners, which is based in Portland. He has since taken on the role of director of medical operations for Rarebreed Veterinary, which allows him to continue practicing while also mentoring and advising others in the field.

Dr. Kate Domenico is an emergency and critical care veterinarian at Maine Veterinary Medical Center in Scarborough. She said the pandemic has had a profound effect, causing clinics to shut down yet emergency hospitals have stayed open. She said she’s two to three times busier than before the pandemic.

“We had staff burnout, doctor burnout,” she said. “We’re certainly overwhelmed in regards to high volume ER visits.”

Emergency veterinary hospitals and clinics are open 24/7, which requires night and weekend staff, but Domenico said it is difficult finding people willing to work overnights.

Another cause of burnout is compassion fatigue, she said, explaining that in some cases owners are forced to euthanize their pets due to financial reasons even though a medical procedure can fix the problem.


“It weighs on us as individuals. They don’t really teach the psychological impact of the field in school,” Domenico said.

Adding to the stress can be office staff who take the brunt of customers upset that their pet can’t be seen earlier, if at all. This can make it difficult to keep receptionists.

“I think to myself, ‘Oh would I go do something else?’ And I wouldn’t,” Domenico said. “I strive for excellence, not perfection. It’s a new mindset, and it’s how I can do my job so well.”

Dr. Russell Danner holds Gizmo during a checkup at New England Animal Hospital in Waterville earlier this month. Mark Poirier, at left, brought in Gizmo. Danner’s clinic and many others in Maine are having difficulty retaining staff, which can increase the wait times for people seeking pet care. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

She worries that the relationship between vets and their customers is being harmed as some clinics continue with curbside services, in which people remain outside as their pet receives care inside. Body language and face-to-face conversations are a big component of trust and communication, especially with emergency medicine and new clients, she said.

New England Animal Hospital in Waterville is feeling the effects of the vet shortage but is also in the process of expanding.

Dr. Russell Danner purchased the hospital in April 2012, and it specializes in small animal medicine, including exotic animals.


Danner said he’s looking for another vet since his previous one moved to New York state when her husband got a new job. His son is graduating in 2023 from vet school; he said he needs to make a spot for him.

“Finding a veterinarian is like finding a unicorn,” Danner said. “I think it’s hard to draw people to Maine, because we don’t have a vet school. The few people we send away don’t always come back.”

Danner thinks he might be able to overcome staffing problems by providing a new facility and attractive hours for employees. The plan is to more than double in size at his hospital’s Pleasant Street location. Work is scheduled to begin next month.

But as the clinic moves forward with its expansion, it’s still contending with the impact of the pandemic. Three of his 10 staffers recently were out due to exposure to coronavirus.

Dr. Paul Balboni with the Animal Hospital of Waterville said his office is accepting new clients but is booking six to eight weeks out.

“The last two years have been very difficult for the entire staff with the high call volume, owner stress reflected at the staff and, of course, all the COVID issues,” Balboni said in an email. “But we are doing well and with time things will improve.”

Winslow Animal Hospital has one veterinarian and one licensed vet tech along with four full-time staff members. They are accepting new patients and usually are booking one to two weeks out, but they’ve stopped performing surgeries.

“We can’t be as efficient with the doctor’s time as we used to be, because we have to be aware of the health needs of our clients,” office manager Cindy Rowe said.

She explained that scheduling appointments have been problematic as staffers must stay away from the office after being exposed to the virus and customers must cancel after they were exposed.

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