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If you've tried to get immediate veterinary care for your pet recently, you've probably had some problems

PAIGE WALLACE - Benji the kitten, here with his new family, Foster-Powell residents Richard Potts and Suzanne Lapidus. The couple called twenty veterinary clinics before finding one that could take the kitten as a new patient - with a wait of at least two months for neuter surgery. For Benji the stray kitten, finding a forever home was easy. In mid-October he walked up to a house in Portland's Foster-Powell neighborhood and mewed plaintively. That family rescued him; and then the couple next door adopted him.

However, the next step of Benji's kittenhood stands as a warning to pet owners across Inner Southeast Portland.

"I was shocked," said Richard Potts, Benji's new owner. Potts and his partner, Suzanne Lapidus, began calling nearby veterinary clinics on October 15, one day after the little orange tabby moved in. They were looking to get him vaccinated and neutered. When that seemingly simple request proved problematic, they started calling clinics further away from home.

"I called eight places in Portland, and twelve places in Vancouver," Potts said. "The more I called the more I realized – this is a disaster right now." Only three of those clinics would take Benji as a new patient. Neutering would have to wait at least two months, and one clinic said they couldn't do the surgery until April.

It turns out, waiting for veterinary care is the new normal in Inner Southeast Portland.

Area pet owners and veterinary facilities are caught in a vicious cycle of delays, according to vets and staff from multiple local clinics. Many of them are so busy they're booking appointments months out, even for established patients. Some are not taking new clients at all.

"People are getting new kittens and new puppies – every week – and have no idea what they're heading into, as far as vet care," lamented Wendy Stilwell, who manages Sellwood's Cat & Dog Hospital of Portland. Because of the high demand, she now spends the first few hours of every workday telling callers there are no immediate appointments available. "It's just so sad that we have to turn away someone who is so worried about their animal, and they can't seem to get in anywhere. It's horrible. It's just horrible."

"People are literally calling from clinic to clinic to clinic to clinic, trying to find someone that can take them," agreed Dr. Alayson Phelps, veterinarian and owner of Brooklyn Yard Veterinary Hospital on S.E. Holgate Boulevard. She said her facility is not taking new clients until after the first part of the year because the demand for appointments exceeds what her staff can provide in any given day.

Powell Veterinary Center, both the Powell Boulevard and Westmoreland locations, states the same situation up front, in its voicemail greeting: "We are unable to accept any new clients, currently."

That same phone message also asks established clients to please call back in 2022 if they're looking to schedule routine care. That's the other problem, vets say: The backup affects even existing clients whose pets are due for vaccinations or wellness checkups.

Stilwell said her clinic is scheduling four to six weeks out. Brooklyn Yard's website tells clients to expect a six to eight week wait. Emily Hamilton, receptionist at Moreland Veterinary Hospital on S.E. Milwaukie Avenue just south of Bybee, said she's already booking routine appointments no earlier than mid-December. To accommodate the demand, her co-workers are putting in extra hours, fitting patients into early morning and post-closing time slots. "We want to be able to see and help as many animals as we can, so we're having 'relief vets' come in, and are double-booking ourselves – and also having vets come in on their days off."

Phelps, at Brooklyn Yard, said scheduling routine care appointments further out means she can still fit in pets with illnesses or injuries that require immediate attention. "For things like vaccines and preventative wellness care, we have just a little bit more 'wiggle room' to push those things out a couple of months."

Emergencies are the most problematic situation right now, local vets agreed. Overbooked clinics here in Inner Southeast Portland often have to turn away injured pets. "We're sending people to DoveLewis, where it's not uncommon for waits to be 18 to 24 hours long, and sometimes even more," said Phelps, remarking how heart-wrenching it's been to turn away patients she was trained to help.

Each pet care provider interviewed for this story expressed exhaustion and sadness that the current situation is so difficult for their clients, their staff, and the pets they all love. "We do not like saying no. It's really, really difficult for us," Phelps added.

Veterinary caregivers cite multiple reasons for the delays, many that built up over the pandemic. For instance, curbside appointments, where pet owners wait in their vehicles while vets examine the animals inside the clinic, requiring extra time and communication. Some clinics are still relying on these types of appointments, while others are again allowing humans to accompany their animals inside, now that COVID restrictions are waning.

Hamilton notes a lot of Portland pet owners limited their trips outside the home during the pandemic. Their animals got behind on routine veterinary care; so now there's a rush to catch up. Meanwhile, new people to the area have been calling to establish their animals with a local vet. On top of that, pet adoptions and purchases remain robust. "It's like a COVID puppy baby boom! Which is phenomenal," Hamilton said – in terms of rescuing unwanted animals – but it adds to the already-high demand for veterinary care.

Staffing troubles were the most commonly cited reason for the current backlog. As Potts scrambled to find somewhere to take Benji, clinics often apologetically explained that they recently had vets or techs leave their practice. Stilwell and Phelps mentioned the current industry-wide shortage of support staff – especially, trained veterinary assistants.

"Veterinary industry people are exiting in droves. It's been a very stressful 18 months in this field," Stilwell explained. She has seen a significant uptick in confrontational behavior directed toward staff, at her clinic and throughout the industry. "If you get an abusive client every couple of months, it's definitely tolerable, but when it's happening every week, staff is already pretty burned out, and it just really takes its toll." She asked for everyone to go easy on the people working at vet's offices, because they're dealing with a lot right now, and they really do want to help.

"Everyone's doing the best they can," Phelps agreed. "Thank your veterinary professionals and support staff, and be kind to those who answer the phones."

Local veterinarians and their teams tell pet owners not to stress out about the current troubles, but instead simply plan ahead and be prepared for emergencies. They offered a wide variety of advice about how to ensure your pets – or future pets – get the care they need. See the box appearing with this article for their suggestions.

As for Benji the kitten, he was finally able to get in recently for his shots and neuter surgery at Mt. Scott Animal Clinic, in the Lents neighborhood, thanks to someone else's last-minute cancellation. Potts offered three suggestions to other pet owners seeking veterinary care in this current climate: First, get on the cancellation list at several different clinics. Second, if you know you'll be taking in a new pet, schedule their initial appointment long before you bring home that new family member. And finally, this bit of advice: "If you take in a stray? You'd just better be prepared to wait."

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How to care for your pet in a veterinary crisis

Veterinary hospitals across inner Southeast Portland have struggled to serve all the pets that need care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Animals may wait weeks or months to get an appointment. Here, local experts offer recommendations to ensure your dog, cat, or other companion animal can access both the routine and emergency care they need.

"Plan ahead. Don't expect to get in tomorrow at three." – Wendy Stilwell, Cat & Dog Hospital of Portland

"Even if your pet is totally healthy and there are no medical issues, call and get on the books for early 2022. Because if you do end up with an issue, it's going to be far easier to get you in somewhere you've been seen before." – Dr. Alayson Phelps, Brooklyn Yard Veterinary Hospital

"Don't hesitate to ask questions before things get bad. We're always here to answer the phone. There's no such thing as a stupid question." – Emily Hamilton, Moreland Veterinary Hospital

"Please be kind and patient with our family, as we are doing our best to help your pets." – Phone greeting at Powell Veterinary Center

"Keep a list of emergency hospitals around the Portland area, not just in Portland proper, so if you do have an emergency, you do have numbers to call." – Wendy Stilwell, Cat & Dog Hospital of Portland

"Stay on top of your vaccines, and book early. Think ahead. Our pets are depending on us! So it's good to work on preventative care as much as possible." – Emily Hamilton, Moreland Veterinary Hospital

"My advice is that is that if you have the opportunity to adopt, and the pet may already have been neutered or spayed and had their shots – you're going to be so much further ahead." – Richard Potts, veterinary client – after learning it could take as long as six months to schedule a neuter surgery for his new kitten


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