ROCHESTER — In the end, Pat Ryan can’t say for sure whether Patches would have survived if emergency veterinary care had been provided in time.
Yet his experience at a Rochester emergency veterinary clinic recently added a layer to his grief.
Patches, a half-Shih Tzu, half-Bichon breed, was an old dog at 16. She was the family’s “Teddy Bear,” a member of the family. It was a Friday when she began bleeding from her mouth. The family didn’t know what was wrong with her, and no clinics were open at that time. Through most of Saturday, things “kind of calmed down,” Ryan said.
But by Saturday night, the dog was bleeding profusely — again, at a time when no day clinic was open. BluePearl Pet Hospital, an emergency veterinary clinic in Rochester, didn’t have late Saturday night hours and wasn’t open until 8 a.m. Sunday.
By the time Ryan arrived Sunday morning, the pet hospital was already swarming with a line of people and their pets stretching out in front of him to see a receptionist. Two rows of vehicles were parked outside, waiting their turn to see a vet. When it was Ryan’s turn, he laid Patches on the counter, and the dog began to bleed on the counter.
The receptionist or vet technician asked Ryan if he had made a reservation, Ryan said.
“I didn’t know you could,” Ryan said. “It doesn’t say on the answering machine to let you know.”
Ryan was told it would be four hours before the dog could be seen by a veterinarian. Ryan told the woman that Patches would bleed to death by that time. He was told a tech would come out as soon as possible. Ryan sat in the waiting area for more than an hour while another animal with what he believed was a less severe issue — a dog with a limp— was given priority, he said.
“(I thought) a dog that was bleeding all over the floor would be more triaged than a dog that has a limp,” Ryan said.
Ryan said a vet technician eventually did come out, but only to grab the leash that Ryan had let drop to put it back in his hand, reprimanding him, “you can’t leave it off the leash.”
“She can’t come out and see the dog, but she can come out and tell me, ‘I can’t leave it off the leash’ really upset me,” Ryan said. “So I just picked up the leash and said, ‘We’re leaving.’”
Ryan took Patches to Predmore Veterinary Clinic in Eyota, where the vet thought the dog suffered from an abscessed tooth. She was given pain medication and antibiotics and arrangements were made to return Tuesday to see how many teeth needed to be removed.
But by Tuesday morning, having gone to their regular vet, the family learned that Patches had lost too much blood: A decision was made to put her to sleep.
“We are beyond distraught,” Ryan said. “This was a child of ours for 16 years.”
The challenge of finding emergency veterinary care at a time of crisis for an ailing pet has become a passionate concern among a growing number of Rochester pet lovers.
A thread on the Spotted in Rochester Facebook page produced nearly 200 comments after a woman described how her inability to find an emergency vet on a Wednesday, when BluePearl is closed, left her watching helplessly as her dog suffered.
“Our dog suffered all night and died the next day,” she wrote. “Are there any people working on finding a solution? Are there things the community could do to help find a solution.”
Rochester pet owners who have seen the holes appear in emergency vet services with growing alarm live in fear of a pet becoming sick at an inconvenient time.
“Honestly, it’s my worst nightmare,” said Sarah Quincey, owner of Cats Meow Cat Sitting. “If it’s not Monday through Friday from 8 to 5 all day, you’re kind of out of luck.”
BluePearl did not specifically address the Rochester clinic in responding to a series of questions sent by the Post Bulletin. It acknowledged that pet health care services continues to rise and that 55,000 additional veterinarians will be needed to “meet the needs of companion animal health care in the U.S. by 2030.”
“While recruiting new veterinary professionals is key to growing the industry, the current workforce is the foundation of everything we do,” said Stephanie Lish, a BluePearl spokesperson. “We’re continuing to find new ways to ensure Associates feel supported.”
Vet technicians and clinic owners point to a number of factors for the increasing imbalance between pet owners’ expectations and the reality of vet services provided.
In the early days of the pandemic, people turned to animals for companionship and comfort. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found in 2021 that about 31 million households got a dog or cat in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic.
Remote workers spent more time at home and became more observant of their pet’s frailities: a dog’s coughing or limp, a cat throwing up. Demand for services soared.
And like human health care, there are more treatment options, drugs and diagnostic tools for taking care of pets than there were in the past.
There are now, one Rochester clinic manager said, “remarkable medications” for pet allergies, but they are expensive. Pet owners are willing to open their wallets for these wunder medicines, because they see how much it improves the quality of life of their pets.
Added to these factors is the severe shortage of veterinarians and vet technicians. Staffing issues were a problem before the pandemic, but it became worse during a surge of retirements during the pandemic. Many did not want to risk getting sick while dealing with clients.
“The shortage is due to many factors, but it is causing problems for pet owners as they try to find care,” said Kimberly Rowley, program leader of the Veterinary Technology Department at Rochester Community and Technical College. “Veterinary professionals are working very hard to see patients and cover emergency cases, but it is difficult and sometimes leaves holes in hours of availability.”
Research conducted in 2020 by Mars Veterinary Health found that by 2030, there will be a shortage of 15,000 vets to serve the expected needs.
Veterinary managers and owners said it’s a struggle to find doctors who are willing to work the late night and early morning hours required of an emergency pet clinic.
Many Rochester vet clinics that operate during the day are fully booked, with 50% to 60% of the cases they see being urgent care cases, not just wellness cases. To ask doctors to work after-hours, at night and on weekends, would mean less time devoted to clients during regular business hours. And that’s not a model that makes sense.
“There’s no way to ask our doctors to give more,” said one Rochester clinic manager.
And it’s not as if veterinarians aren’t feeling the pressure. A 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that veterinarians are up to 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than members of the general population.
Still, the lack of availability of emergency vet services can have tragic consequences short of having one’s pet die.
Kirkland Reynolds and his wife, Jenny Cannon, are both pastors of United Methodist Church. In making the move from the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., to Rochester two years ago, they tried to break down their kids’ opposition to the move: They told them they would be getting a puppy.
“It was part of the bribe to get our kids to at least talk to us a little about the move, because they love being here now but they were not on board with moving here initially,” Reynolds said.
The family ended up getting a yellow lab puppy.
“We were all excited about it. She was like 10 weeks old when we got her, so small, brand new, the world, everything is new,” he said.
One day, while taking Abbey on a short Sunday afternoon walk, the dog ate some mushrooms and fell over, foaming at the mouth.
“We didn’t really know if she was choking or poisoned or some combination of things. But it was really not good — and terrifying,” Reynolds said.
Since it was a Sunday and the family’s veterinarian was unavailable, the family rushed Abbey to BluePearl. After taking the dog back to an examining room, the vets came back and told the Reynolds that Abbey’s condition was “not good,” that she may not make it. She would need to be given oxygen for 24 hours, if not longer. She was put in a special, air-tight crate in which oxygen was fed into the apparatus.
“And then they tell us, because I remember this very well, they said, ‘we had someone leave like a week or two earlier, and so we’re no longer 24 hours,’” Reynolds recalled. “’She’s on oxygen now. But you need to go to our closest location in the Twin Cities, in Eden Prairie.’ And we’re like, ‘OK, can we take oxygen with us?’ And they said, ‘No, that’s not possible.’”
He was told he would have to drive the dog to Eden Prairie as fast as he could and hope she was still breathing when he got there.
Reynolds drove the car, and his mom sat in the back seat to check on Abbey’s breathing.
“We were really on the clock, and you can hear this dog wheezing and wheezing. And every couple of minutes, it got worse and worse,” Reynolds said.
By the time they pulled up to the Eden Prairie clinic, the veterinarians there were ready to receive the dog. She was taken into the hospital and was put back on oxygen.
Abbey survived. After a week-long stay at the hospital, the dog returned home.
But it was never the same dog. Acting in a manner “very unlike her breed,” Abbey became aggressive toward the family. Family members were getting attacked and bit. And despite spending considerable time and money on trainers, specialists and behaviorists to restore her earlier amiable personality, Abbey remained aggressive and snarling.
“We ultimately had to re-home her, because she was attacking us without provocation, without any rhyme or reason,” Reynolds said. “We couldn’t figure out what it was that we were doing that was contributing to her acting out.”
The family was able to get Abbey back to the breeder, who eventually found a new home for her on a farm. Abbey, Reynolds has been told, is doing great on the farm, where “she can run and play” with other animals. And Reynolds and his family adopted a new dog from the breeder, a Golden Retriever.
“It became clear that, though, we were the right people to help her get through that healing journey and save her life given this terrible thing that happened,” Reynolds said. “We did not stay the right people to help her grow and thrive with a family. We just could not provide for her what she needed.
“But we’re grateful that she is with the right family. And we’re so happy to have a dog today, who has been a real gift to us,” Reynolds said.