WATERTOWN — To save her dog, Tracy Weeks resorted to lying as to who owned it in order to get the local emergency care that saved its life.

“I live penny to penny and my dog’s surgery was $1,059,” Weeks, of Watertown, wrote in an email to the Times. “I had to do it as she is all I have, as I lost my husband to suicide a few years ago, so she’s my best friend.”

A lack of veterinarians in the north country has caused a scramble, especially when emergency, off-hours urgent care is needed for a pet, which equates to a road trip to as far away as the Albany area. Meanwhile, new pet owners could be out of luck as that veterinarian shortage also limits some practices from accepting new clients and their pets.

“They want you to rescue animals, but how?” Weeks wrote. “We can’t get care.”

It is a familiar complaint heard by veterinarians like Dr. Christopher J. Jank, co-owner/partner at Watertown Animal Hospital, 1445 Washington St.

“A lot of pet owners aren’t happy that it came to this,” Jank said. “Some of them are also realizing that it wasn’t sustainable the way we were doing it. You can’t do it all 24/7.”

Fewer veterinarians are available in the area due to retirement, medical issues and relocation, Jank said, adding that there is also the “inability to work normal office hours, burnout, young children at home and corporate policies.”

The Veterinary Care Accessibility Project provides scores for every county in the contiguous United States. The mapping project uses data from a wide array of sources to account for key factors that affect access to vet care. The result is a single number that helps answer the question: How accessible is veterinary care in my community?

The VCAP numbers for Northern New York aren’t good:

• Lewis County, 64 — indicating that veterinary care is “generally accessible.”

• Jefferson County, 50 — veterinary care is “somewhat accessible.”

• St. Lawrence and Franklin counties — 25 and 24 respectively, indicating that veterinary care is “difficult to access.”

Timothy Atkinson, executive director of the New York State Veterinary Medical Society, Albany, said the shortage of veterinarians in the state is “fairly regionalized.” The society is a nonprofit, professional member association that enables and advocates for veterinarians in the state.

“When people say general statements about veterinary shortages or whatever, you can see that in New York, it’s very localized,” Atkinson said. “There are some areas like down in Westchester (county), where there’s excellent coverage right now.”

Dr. Christopher J. Jank, co-partner/owner of Watertown Animal Hospital, calms Sully, a 3-year old black Lab, before clipping his nails. Zachary Canaperi/Watertown Daily Times

Speculating as to the reasons for the shortage of veterinarians in the north country, Atkinson said, “I imagine it’s challenging to get people who don’t know or aren’t familiar with an area to move up there because not everyone understands what it’s like to go and live somewhere remote and maybe less aware of the attractions, or just more familiar with other places.”

“It’s always been difficult to find people to work in this area, and I think that’s true of most professions in the area,” Jank said. “It’s especially true for veterinarians, unless you are from this area. It’s not a high rate of pay like somewhere like a larger city or a corporate practice. It’s difficult to get people to come here and work.”

‘Not sustainable’

Jank, a Watertown native, began working at Watertown Animal Hospital about 25 years ago. “Back then, the clinics saw their own emergencies, or at least we did,” he said.

In 2006, Watertown Animal Hospital joined three other practices that offered emergency care for sick pets after normal operating hours. Assisting in that setup about 20 years ago was Dr. David M. Plante, who retired as a veterinarian in 2019. But if a small animal had a serious emergency where time was critical, its owners were referred to Syracuse’s Veterinary Medical Center. That’s one of the clinics where clients are now referred to for all emergencies.

“We try to be very up front with clients,” Jank said. “It’s just not sustainable in this area. It’s very difficult and very frustrating because sometimes the emergency clinic in Syracuse is not taking patients, and they have to go to Cornell, and sometimes Cornell isn’t taking patients and sometimes they have to go as far away as Latham, near Albany. That’s very frustrating for our clients, and it’s frustrating for us. Sometimes, even when we just have a patient that we know needs overnight care, there is no place to send them.”

Emergency pet care is expensive.

“If you were to go to an emergency clinic just for like a routine thing, you’re talking probably a thousand dollars easily,” Jank said. “And now, if it’s not like, ‘My God, my pet is dying!’ you’d better be prepared to wait for several hours.”

The situation is compounded if a client doesn’t have an assigned veterinarian on record for their pet.

Rob Schexnayder, practice manager at Watertown Animal Hospital, stands behind an operating table in the operating room. Zachary Canaperi/Watertown Daily Times

“Even something minor like a vomiting dog, if they don’t have a veterinarian, they have to call the emergency clinic,” Jank said, adding that many people, because of financial reasons, won’t do that.

Mondays can be especially frantic at veterinarian clinics. “Quite often, if we talk to someone on Saturday, we tell them we are open on Monday and they may put in an appointment,” Jank said. “I think all practices will leave open slots that day for emergency calls. We generally fill up on Mondays.”

The Cornell University Companion Animal Hospital, 930 Campus Road, Ithaca, a two-hour drive from Watertown, is one of the centers where local pet owners are referred for emergencies. The CAH is open 24/7. Individuals do not need to make an appointment.

The Cornell CAH has provided emergency services for more than 20 years. However, the current model was established 17 years ago, when Cornell began training emergency and critical care (ECC) residents.

“It’s a good idea for owners to call first, to provide one of our client service representatives with a description of the emergency the pet is experiencing,” said Dr. Gretchen L. Schoeffler, Cornell University clinical professor, section of emergency and critical care. She is also a diplomat for the American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care. “Like all veterinary hospitals, we sometimes have limitations on what we can offer.”

If the pet has been or is currently being treated for the issue of concern by another veterinarian, the CAH asks that when available, the veterinarian currently providing the pet’s medical care call CAH and speak to one of its emergency service clinicians to discuss emergency referral.

“Taking these steps can help owners better understand what to expect when they arrive,” Schoeffler said.

Telehealth pet care

As one option for emergency service, websites of some local veterinarians refer to VetTriage, “the world’s first and foremost provider of veterinary telehealth services.” Pet owners can connect with VetTriage’s in-house team of veterinarians via video chat from a computer or mobile device. Schoeffler said Cornell’s CAH teamed up with VetTriage two years ago, prompted by a surge in the number of patients being presented for care and acknowledging that, “many of those patients did not necessarily need emergency services.”

Kealey Copeland, licensed veterinary technician, runs samples at the Watertown Animal Hospital. Zachary Canaperi/Watertown Daily Times

“We have seen great benefits since teaming up with VetTriage,” Schoeffler said. “Clients benefit by having a telemedicine consult with a licensed veterinarian within minutes of initiating contact and these visits are conducted in the comfort of their own home.” Wait times to connect, she said, are generally less than 30 minutes.

“Oftentimes, the VetTriage veterinarian can make recommendations for at-home care, until the pet can be seen by its primary care veterinarian,” Schoeffler said. “When the Vet-Triage veterinarian determines that the pet should receive in-person emergency care, they act as the referring veterinarian and coordinate the pet’s visit with our on-duty emergency clinicians.”

The utilization of VetTriage has allowed the CAH emergency service staff to work more efficiently and focus on the patients that most need help, Schoeffler said.

But the option hasn’t lessened the workload much at CAH.

“Absolutely, our caseload has surged over the last several years and we have definitely felt the impact of other veterinary hospitals in the region closing and or reducing provision of after-hours emergency services,” Schoeffler said. “We are doing our best to meet as many patients’ needs as possible, but the shortages in professional and paraprofessional staff, especially those willing and able to work non-traditional-business hours, are being felt by everyone.”

Clients should expect for emergency care to be more expensive than routine care, and at CAH and other clinics, full payment is expected at the time service is rendered.

“Once the pet has been evaluated, the emergency clinician will provide the client with an estimate for the care that is being recommended,” Schoeffler said. “If the emergency clinician recommends a client’s pet be hospitalized, clients are expected to leave 50 percent of the estimate as a deposit and the balance is due once the pet is no longer in our care.”

More pets, FEWER VETS

In August, Mars Veterinary Health reported in a study it enlisted that up to 55,000 more veterinarians will be needed to meet the needs of companion animal health care in the U.S. by 2030 and that it would take more than 30 years of graduates to meet the 10-year industry need for credentialed veterinary technicians.

MVH has 3,000 veterinary clinics worldwide.

The veterinary shortage creates stress for those working in the profession. Jank said those stress points include “difficulty hiring, short staffing, burnout, increased abuse from clients online and on phone, the inability to retire and corporate buyouts.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdowns that began in March 2020 made a short-staffing situation worse in the profession.

“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back almost, where things were trending where we were having a shortage of veterinarians, to a much more serious situation,” Jank said. “A lot of people said, ‘I’m going to retire, or do something else besides clinical practice.’”

Clinics switched to curbside service. “That was frustrating,” Jank said. “Clients were also frustrated and there was a lot of stress involved. And meanwhile, people were getting all kinds of new pets.”

Many clients during the pandemic, Jank said, “were not good — kind of cranky — to put it mildly.”

In September 2020, the hospital manager at North Country Veterinary Services posted a treatise on its Facebook page related to that cranky behavior:

“As the pandemic progressed, we’ve experienced a surge of nasty, unsatisfied, unreasonable, entitled clients. Our employees have been screamed and cursed at. This is a national trend, but it is heartbreaking to see our staff treated this way on a daily basis. We are in danger of smart, wonderful technicians and support staff leaving the profession due to the verbal abuse that happens daily…”

“When COVID hit, everybody stopped taking new clients,” Jank said. “Just recently, we got our schedule adjusted enough and kind of caught up.”

Watertown Animal Hospital, he said, is now accepting new clients “on a limited basis” and he thinks that trend will continue at other clinics. On Feb. 8, South Jefferson Veterinary Hospital, Adams, posted on its Facebook page that the small practice is accepting new clients.

VCA North Country Animal Hospital, 16760 Route 3, Hounsfield, was able to buck that “no new clients” trend. In 2019, VCA purchased the business from Plante, who retired that year. He and his wife, Dr. Teresa K. Dewey, established the business in 1987.

VCA spokeswoman Lauren Herrmann said the animal hospital has always accepted new clients, going back to its original owners.

“They take great pride in being one of the only practices in their area that has been able to accommodate new clients and their pets’ needs,” Herrmann said of VCA North Country Animal Hospital.

Sully, a 3-year-old black Lab, gets his nails clipped by Dr. Christopher J. Jank, co-partner/owner of Watertown Animal Hospital. Zachary Canaperi/Watertown Daily Times

The veterinarian pipeline

Jank said that veterinary colleges are increasing class sizes and there are new veterinary colleges opening up, “but they won’t be producing veterinarians for a couple of years.”

Late last year, the American Veterinary Medical Association reported that the number of first-year veterinary students enrolled for the 2022-23 school year at U.S. veterinary colleges exceeded 4,000 for the first time.

In February 2023, Long Island University held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open its College of Veterinary Medicine Learning Center, a state-of-the-art facility that serves as the primary home to the New York metropolitan region’s only veterinary medicine program. The College of Veterinary Medicine was approved by the LIU Board of Trustees in 2017. The opening of the Veterinary Learning Center is part of the university’s significant investment project designated for the College of Veterinary Medicine. It welcomed its inaugural class in the fall of 2020.

“This might help the Watertown area,” Atkinson said. “A lot of the (LIU) graduates want to stay in New York and they’ll be graduating 100 people a year in the next few years.”

When new veterinarians are hired at state clinics, the NYSVMS’s MentorVet program, founded in 2021, is a way to assist many of them early in their careers. The society provides 10 scholarships a year to fully fund new veterinarians joining the mentor program. Member dues support it, which is designed to share “tools to prevent and cope with the stress, frustration and burnout” in the profession.

“It’s tailor made to help people with that transition process and to be successful as young veterinarians,” Atkinson said. “It’s often quite a jump to come straight out of veterinary college and straight into the working world of veterinarians, particularly if it’s a busy practice.”

NYSVMS also has a veterinary mentor certificate program. For new veterinarians, it offers debt and financial wellness programs, including money mentoring, a 90-day program that will help young vets feel confident and clear about their personal finances. A student loan analysis and a financial independence plan package is also available. All have fees. But the society does offer a basic student loan analysis for free.

“We offer a free program for our veterinarian members so they can sit down with a high-quality financial adviser who will help them understand how to not only have the best repayment program, but also put together a longer-term plan so they can see that actually, it’s going to work out over time — that if they choose the right debt repayment program, they still made the good financial choice becoming a veterinarian,” Atkinson said.

“Some of these kids come out owing like hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Jank said. “That’s a huge stress to pay off and they have to command the salaries to do that. That’s one of the reasons why it’s harder to get people up here.”

Food animal care shortage

According to data compiled by the American Veterinary Medical Association, companion animal practices made up for 70.4% of veterinarians in the U.S. in 2023. Mixed practices were at 4.8%; equine at 4.1% and food animal practices at 3.8%.

There are no government incentives for people to study to become companion animal veterinarians, Jank noted. “Pets are important for people’s health. But you won’t get government to recognize that,” he said.

But there are government programs to attract more veterinarians to the field of farm/food animals. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture provides grants to support food animal veterinary services and to relieve veterinarian shortage situations across the U.S. That program has two components: grants to support veterinarians who practice in USDA-designated veterinarian shortage areas and education, extension and training grants support training and education for veterinary students, interns and residents.

Bones, a clinic cat at Watertown Animal Hospital, was rescued and nurtured back to health by the staff. Bones now enjoys roaming around the facility. Zachary Canaperi/Watertown Daily Times

The AMVA says those profession shortages, recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, could jeopardize animal and public health, endanger food safety and the agricultural community. AMVA also reports that because careers in food animal and public health medicine typically pay less than companion animal practice, the earning disparity can make it financially difficult or impossible for veterinarians to pursue or remain in food animal and public health careers.

According to a USDA/National Institute of Food and Agriculture map, several counties in New York face a shortage of “rural area food animal medicine.” But no counties in the north country are listed in that category.

The AVMA-endorsed Rural Veterinary Workforce Act would end federal taxation on the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program, which could enable more veterinarians to participate in a program that offers up to $25,000 a year for student loan repayment in exchange for service in USDA-designated veterinarian shortage situations.

Worries, rewards

At 56, Jank can see retirement on the horizon. But he worries for the younger veterinarians in the profession, whom he says may have an attitude of, ‘Oh, my God! I’ve got to keep doing this!’”

But the profession is rewarding, he said.

“There are some people I’ve been seeing for generations of pets. Their kids bring their pets to us. I’ve been through three generations of pets with some families.”

And he said, the profession has one constant, guaranteed to bring joy:

“Breaking in a new puppy is the best part.”


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