Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York issued a sweeping executive order that essentially put the state on a pandemic lockdown beginning Sunday, March 22. One week later, my friend Cyndi, an exotics pet specialist at the Animal Medical Center in New York, said that she and all other part-time veterinarians were being put on furlough until further notice. Before the lockdown, the Exotics Service had two full-time and three part-time veterinarians, but by the end of April was reduced to only two veterinarians. Cyndi received her salary at 50 per cent through a congressional bailout to keep workers employed, but it was due to expire July 31. She was told her she would be let go then, along with all the other furloughed veterinarians, as the hospital was losing more than half-a-million dollars per week. Another friend, Jennifer, an assistant professor at Tufts Veterinary School, was in a similar position and expected to lose her job. It was grim, but a funny thing happened. Colleagues reported that May was their busiest month ever. Cyndi was asked to come back and work four days a week instead of her usual two days. Jennifer was invited to find another veterinarian to help.
Veterinarians estimated that they saw 25 per cent more new pets than normal. It was not only busier, but revenue increased. Another colleague, Angela, with an exotic pet clinic in Indianapolis, added five new non-veterinary employees and still had job listings for more. Her clinic had to buy two extra phone lines to handle an inundation of calls from pet owners.
Veterinarians have made owners, and their pets feel comfortable when seeking routine care, something that human hospitals have struggled to do. Most veterinarians now require curbside service — owners drop their pet at the door and wait outside during the appointment — lessening the risk of catching coronavirus. However, the curbside visits require more time, as staff play phone tag with owners and develop new intake processes. Dog and cat veterinarians report that regular consultations of 15 minutes are now 30 minutes. This has made the waiting time to get an appointment longer and is a significant reason more veterinarians are being hired or working longer hours. Animal emergency clinics now appear to be handling the overflow from overwhelmed clinics. Another colleague at Tufts in emergency medicine reported that when she takes a call, many owners say that Tufts was often the third veterinary practice they tried calling to get an appointment. Some emergency clinics which used to see all patients turning up for appointments are sometimes telling owners they are too full to accept more patients and direct them to nearby clinics.
The increase in veterinary demand appears to be due to one crucial factor: millions of Americans working from home. They have taken the occasion to bring home new pets. Shelter Animals Count, a collaborative nonprofit organization home to a national database of 1500 shelters and rescue organizations tracked the adoption data and found intake declined dramatically (-51 per cent compared to the same time last year); the number of relinquished pets was down -54 per cent; the adoption rate increased by 7 per cent. While some shelters emptied thanks to high demand, a few shelters did not allow adoption during the lockdown, fearing the animals might be a fad and would be returned or abandoned. In the initial phases of the lockdown, there was concern many owners might surrender their pets to shelters or abandon them. I helped write news briefs for the Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians on the low risk of COVID transmission from ferrets and cats – two animals found to be susceptible to infection and replication of coronavirus. Dogs are relatively resistant, although there were reports of COVID positive dogs in Hong Kong and New York. Besides shelters, many Americans bought pets. A mid-July report in the Veterinary Record indicated prices for puppies skyrocketed during the lockdown in the UK, with some over four times higher than usual. An internet search found Labradors for sale at £3000 per puppy, cavapoos priced at £5000, and French bulldogs advertised at £7000 each. The usual price for a French bulldog is £1500–£2000, a quarter of the current top going rate.
In deciding there is a benefit in maintaining the health of their animals, pet owners have confronted the outside world more than non-pet owners. Much of the increase in veterinary care is for wellness visits and vaccinations. By contrast, primary care spending for humans is estimated to have dropped by $15 billion throughout the pandemic. Veterinarians provide transparent prices, something that the human health system does not. Owners trust their veterinarians to provide reliable price estimates, partly because regular consultation, diagnostic and treatment charges do not vary by the type of insurance. Unfortunately, in the US, patients may be reluctant to return to the human health system because they have lost coverage, or have less income, and are worried about the possibility of a surprise bill. A recent newspaper story was of a woman charged $1980 for a COVID test by her hospital.
Demand for veterinary services is typically cyclical: When the economy is strong, owners spend more on medical care for pets because they have more disposable income. When the economy is weak, owners have less disposable cash. The economic downturn from COVID is different. Both revenue and volume are up at animal clinics and hospitals. VetSuccess, a practice management group with over 2,800 clinics, estimated that revenue in July was up 18 per cent over July 2019. Trupanion, a pet insurance provider, broadcast an earnings call in early August, to report that its second-quarter revenue was up 28 per cent over last year. It has 14 per cent more canine and feline members compared with the first quarter, a pivotal moment when 5.4 million Americans lost their health coverage. Unsurprisingly, some of those newly insured pets have names that fit the pandemic: COVID, Corona and Rona.
Americans already owning pets appear to have become more vigilant of their animal companions during the long pandemic days at home together. Sometimes they observe important changes in their pet’s health. Vet Emergency discussion boards have anecdotally reported a rise in cases of urinary obstructions among cats, and some clinicians suggested it was a sign of feline stress due to their human owners spending more time at home than a cat would like. In contrast, pet dogs have been waiting for a lockdown all their lives. A Colorado State University study of 5,000 owners found that 70 per cent of the dog respondents were spending more time with their dog, and 42.5 per cent said they were walking their dogs more frequently.