Be kind to your local veterinarian. The pandemic upended pet health care too.

You may be asking yourself: Why it is taking so long to be seen by a veterinarian this last year? Why are wait times at the ER clinics in Anchorage often several hours, if not all day? As a local emergency veterinarian, I can confidently tell you it is not because we are taking time off, that’s for sure. I wanted to help shed light on the current situation in the veterinary industry, maybe bring some clarity and understanding on why things have changed so much in the last year.

Well, just like everything, COVID-19 happened. When everyone was staying at home, sheltering in place, caring for their families, many people also decided to get a new pet. That notion fills my heart with warmth and compassion, that so many people wanted to open their doors to newly adopted shelter animals, rehomed animals, or animals from breeders. The largest shelters kept track of the volume of pets being adopted, and most reported an almost 50% increase in adoption rates. The Society for Prevention of Cruelty of Animals in Los Angeles, a shelter with some of the most animals in the country, actually had waitlists of people wanting to adopt animals, and not enough animals to offer people. At our local Anchorage Animal Care and Control, there were times of no dogs available for adoption.

Second, at the beginning of the pandemic, we veterinarians were ordered by the government to halt all elective procedures to save on medical equipment and manufacturing. This meant no spays, neuters, mass removals, dental cleanings, etc. Any procedure that was not life-threatening was ordered halted for several months until those medical supplies were readily available again. This created a waitlist of patients needing these procedures when we were able to perform them again.

Third, the outdoor industry has boomed during this past year, because that is something that everyone can safely do. Hiking, biking, camping, skiing — all the fun outdoors Alaska has to offer has been inundated with more visitors and their new pets. As a result, we in the ERs have seen a large increase in outdoor-related injuries. Dog fights, allergic reactions, wounds and stomach upset from curious dogs eating weird things lying on the ground and trails. I can regale you with tales of things dogs have eaten to their detriment.

So, what happens in this situation where the existing clinics are booked out as a result of an influx of new patients, waitlisted patients and procedures, and everyone has a new dog and/or cat, and those animals are ill? To give you an example, just last night in our ER, we had 32 patients arrive to be seen within seven hours of each other. Thirty-two! And every single patient was extremely ill. Dogs that had their face and mouth filled with porcupine quills. Dogs experiencing life-threatening anaphylactic allergic reactions. Dogs that were in violent dog fights, suffering from wounds that required full surgical anesthesia to repair and stabilize. Cats that had corneas punctured from cat fights. Animals that had been hit by cars. Animals in heart failure, not able to breath and blue on presentation to the ER. Dogs that had been let outside, only to be kicked by an unexpected moose in the yard. Animals that have severe ear infections that can’t wait three weeks to be seen by their already overbooked regular veterinarian. Animals that have been vomiting for 24 hours, unable to keep food down.

And every one of these pets deserves our full attention; to ease suffering, provide good medicine and excellent nursing care. Unfortunately, that is not an extraordinary night in the ER. This past year, our caseload has increased exponentially. All veterinarians are still trying to play catch up from the waitlists in procedures that were created last summer. We are trying to find room in our schedule to fit in that new puppy among our already overscheduled day. We are skipping lunches, staying late, and doing the best we possibly can to try to accommodate every pet’s needs.

How can you help? Your kindness, patience, and understanding are what we need. We need to support the veterinarians, technicians and client care representatives that we do have, so we can continue to care for the pets of Anchorage. If you come to the ER, expect that we see cases based on severity. So that if your pet is waiting longer than most, it is because your pet will probably be going home with you that night after we are able to treat it. Other families will not be so lucky. We are all working hard, sincerely wanting to offer the best medicine and care we can for each and every pet.


A “thank you” goes a long way. Yelling at us because we aren’t fast enough does not.

Dr. Ashley Harmon, DVM, is a veterinarian at an Anchorage emergency animal hospital. Her professional interests include pain management, acupuncture, trauma stabilization and emergency surgery. She lives in Anchorage with her family.

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