Preparing for the Influx of New Pets and the Veterinary Care Backlog From the Pandemic

By Roxanne Hawn |

Why those first appointments and good communication matter now more than ever.
Veterinarian with clients and pets waiting in the animal hospital lobby

Animal shelters and rescues are seeing spikes in adoption demand for so-called pandemic pups or quarantine kitties during COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. In an April 2020 survey of 108 animal shelters, 43.5% of the shelters reported increased adoptions. Even the Wall Street Journal and CNN.com have published articles about people “panic buying” puppies.

For the first time ever, the Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control in Florida emptied one of its three kennels, which features 48 runs that often house two dogs each. The shelter posted a Facebook video of staff and volunteers cheering from the rows of empty kennels.

Foothills Animal Shelter in Golden, Colorado, quickly adopted 35 pets, including several young puppies and kittens when it started offering adoptions by appointment only. Demand for pets built up during a few weeks with no adoptions while the staff figured out how to follow state restrictions and still help pets in the community.

To help keep the onsite population at numbers the smaller staff could handle without the usual cadre of volunteers, Foothills moved nearly 90 animals into foster care. That too is happening elsewhere. The ASPCA reports a 70% jump in foster volunteers at its shelters in Los Angeles and New York City.

Kristina Mausser lives in Smith Falls, Ontario, Canada. On March 23, 2020, she announced on Facebook the addition of a Saint Bernard puppy whom she named Karma: “Last week they closed the borders, and this little girl needed a home. Good thing because we needed a friend to keep us company at this time. Her name is Karma because we could all use a little good karma right now. Our family is once again complete.”

Backlog of Veterinary Care

Families adding new pets during the pandemic will increase the backlog of veterinary needs piling up during state and local shutdowns. In their stay-at-home orders, many communities barred veterinary practices from providing routine care, including ovariohysterectomy and orchiectomy and, in some cases, vaccinations — though some places recognized the importance of puppies and kittens receiving their series of vaccinations on schedule and allowed those during restrictions through contactless appointments.

Mausser says, “We managed to get Karma’s vaccinations done before they only started accepting emergency appointments. We’re not sure how she’s going to get her Lyme booster. Of course, socialization is top of mind. We can’t even be in the exam room with her, so we’re missing out on those ‘firsts’ too. Finally, Saint Bernards grow over night. We are missing out on making sure she is developing in a healthy way and eating the right amount of food to support her growth.”

In Colorado, Andrea Pearson whose family added a German Shepherd puppy they named Rezi echoes concerns about nutrition, weight gain, and socialization for her new canine pal. She adds these veterinary needs to the list:

  • Later rounds of vaccinations due soon
  • Behavioral input, including what to focus on now, what to watch for
  • Options for paid telehealth visits

Brewing Baby Boom and Pets in Estrus

Kyle Holgate from WoofWhiskers, which surveyed shelters, predicts a surge in demand for spay/neuter surgeries later in 2020 and a possible baby boom of puppies and kittens into 2021. “This will come from both shelters and pet owners that put these surgeries off due to government-mandated shutdowns, unwillingness to leave the house due to self-quarantine, and financial strain that doesn't place spay/neuter as a priority,” he says.

However, before then, people who adopted young pets just before the pandemic on spay/neuter contracts who’ve been unable to schedule surgeries or others who haven’t had access to those surgeries may be facing female pets in estrus or male pets exhibiting troublesome behaviors related to reaching sexual maturity.

In communities where spay/neuter is the norm, having pets reach sexual maturity may be an all-new adventure for people — even experienced pet owners. Clients likely will need additional veterinary guidance on:

  • What to look for, including changes in behavior or eating habits in the short term
  • How long it will last
  • How to keep pets safe and prevent breeding
  • When to call the veterinary hospital for help

Some may also need additional coaching and options for any accidental pet pregnancies.

First Appointments, Loyalty, and Bonding

It’s a challenge for veterinary teams and for clients to navigate new pet needs and conversations without the usual onsite, face-to-face appointments.

It helps everyone cope with curbside service when those relationships already exist, but if a family is also new to pet ownership entirely or new clients to a veterinary practice, then it’s especially important to solidify those bonds early to build loyalty, trust, and perceived value through good communication.

Kathy Sheehan lost her job before the pandemic hit. In mid-March, she drove from Virginia to South Carolina to pick up her new Border Collie puppy, Roadie. Normally, she takes all her new puppies for frequent socialization visits to the veterinary hospital, but that’s not currently possible.

She says, “I spent months finding a new veterinary practice when I moved to Virginia. I am so glad that I did find one that I really trust. It isn't just the primary doctor, but also the vet techs, receptionists —everyone! Having to hand over your puppy in a parking lot [for a contactless appointment] underscores the importance of having a solid relationship … I do feel like we are getting what we need, albeit missing being there with him.”

Other clients may require more help from veterinary teams, including those who:

  • Don’t already have a strong relationship with a veterinary hospital
  • Are first-time pet owners
  • Have not had a new pet or young pet in a long time

In 2018, researchers at Wilmington University published a study about veterinary consumer loyalty. They found that attitudinal loyalty (AL), which they describe as a psychological construct rather than a behavioral one, “has a strong positive relationship with communication at multiple points in a veterinary clinic … Additional findings suggest that AL, which is influenced by trust in the veterinarian, communication from staff members and commitment, has a strong positive relationship with behavioral intentions, increases the number of products and services that a pet-owner consumes at his or her primary veterinary clinic, and attenuates the role of cost in receiving veterinary care.”1

In 2017, the Centre for Evidence Based Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nottingham published a series of studies looking at expectations and feelings by clients and veterinarians about wellness visits, including the differences between appointments for puppies and kittens versus adults. The authors discuss how practitioners and others assume preventive healthcare consultations are relatively simple, but how in daily practice they can be more complicated because unlike sick-pet visits, discussions often cover multiple concerns rather than just one urgent issue.2

In one of the Centre’s studies, researchers found that the pace of the appointment “appeared to be at least as important” as the actual length of time. Both owners and veterinarians reported feeling rushed and even altered their communication style to keep consultations within the allotted time.3

While strong bonds sometimes form in times of crisis, mandated confinement and other worries may also make stressed veterinary consumers less patient and crankier, which can put satisfaction and loyalty in jeopardy. The challenges of contactless appointments only add to possible discomfort and miscommunication.

Millennial pet owners, in particular, bring higher expectations to their veterinary encounters. In a 2019 survey done by Weave, a customer communications platform provider, 81% of Millennials said they wanted veterinarians to know who they are automatically when they call, without having to look up their account, and 83% expect a follow-up call or text within 48 hours of veterinary visits.4

Communication and Service

During this highly unusual global situation, veterinary clients need consistent, clear communication and services from all members of the veterinary team. Individuals’ comprehension and ability to process information is likely low amid the many pandemic distractions.

If anything, err on the side of over-communication to support the patience and partnership required to provide proper service to clients and the best care to pets — including those pandemic puppies and quarantine kittens.

1 Brown BR.; The Dimensions of Pet-Owner Loyalty and the Relationship with Communication, Trust, Commitment and Perceived Value. Vet Sci. 2018 Nov 6;5(4).
2 Belshaw, Z.; Robinson, N.J.; Dean, R.S.; Brennan, M.L. “I Always Feel Like I Have to Rush…” Pet Owner and Small Animal Veterinary Surgeons’ Reflections on Time during Preventative Healthcare Consultations in the United Kingdom. Vet. Sci. 2018, 5, 20.
3 Belshaw, Z.; Robinson, N.J.; Dean, R.S.; Brennan, M.L. “I Always Feel Like I Have to Rush…” Pet Owner and Small Animal Veterinary Surgeons’ Reflections on Time during Preventative Healthcare Consultations in the United Kingdom. Vet. Sci. 2018, 5, 20.
4 “How Can Pet Clinics Please Millennials,” based on a September 2018 national survey of 532 Millennial pet owners completed by Weave: https://mma.prnewswire.com/media/973536/Weave_infographic_millennial_pet_owners.pdf?p=pdf

About the Author

Roxanne Hawn is a professional writer and award-winning blogger based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. A former writer/editor for the American Animal Hospital Association and the American Humane Association, she has written about veterinary medicine and pet topics for nearly 20 years. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, Reader’s Digest, Natural Home, Bankrate.com, WebMD, The Bark, Modern Dog, and many high-profile outlets. Her first book is called Heart Dog: Surviving the Loss of Your Canine Soul Mate.
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