A gray and white, striped kitten lies belly-up on an operating table, the rise and fall of its breath barely perceptible under the stupor of anesthesia. Yet its heartbeat comes in steady on the monitor as veterinarian Rick Snook makes a small incision in the kitten’s abdomen and deftly removes its reproductive organs.
Snook has nearly four decades of experience spaying and neutering pets, and it takes him just a few minutes to complete the procedure.
On an adjacent table, lead tech Dora Montaño prepares a second kitten—a tabby this time. Snook ties off the last stitch on the first cat and then turns to the other table, picks up a fresh set of tools and repeats the surgery.
In an average year, the Española Humane Society’s spay and neuter clinic, which is free and open to the public, performs about 40 surgeries a day.
That number dropped significantly in 2020. The clinic closed its doors completely for two months. Once it reopened, it could not operate at full capacity due to the social distancing requirements of COVID-19 safety protocols. The Humane Society also stopped offering free vaccination clinics.
The shelter has now fully reopened its spay and neuter and vaccine clinics, but is still working through a backlog of clients. Appointments are booked out until September, and the shelter is beginning to see the impacts of a year without these basic services.
“We are definitely concerned about the number of pets coming into the shelter and we can link that directly to the lack of spay and neuter services in the last year,” says Karina Exell, director of operations at the shelter.
Vets across Northern New Mexico say the pandemic exacerbated an existing shortage in veterinary care in the region as clinics were forced to shut down or reduce hours and services.
Now, many are underwater as they face heightened demand and the consequences of delayed care.
“There was already an existing issue with not having enough veterinarians in the state, but then having them be unable to see patients has just made it catastrophic,” says veterinary technician Rowan Welcome, whose 24-hour emergency clinic in Albuquerque, the Route 66 Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Center, has absorbed much of the impact as smaller rural providers closed their doors.
The shortage has left everyday pet owners without many options.
White Rock resident Katrina Poznan adopted a new dog from the Española Humane Society in June. A week later she noticed it was wheezing and struggling to breathe normally.
Poznan’s established veterinarian in Los Alamos could not see the dog until the end of August, and other clinics in the area told her they were not taking new clients. Poznan was finally able to take the dog to the Española shelter for an examination since she had adopted it so recently, but worries other pet owners might have no other option than to drive down to Albuquerque to wait for their pet to be seen at a walk-in emergency clinic.
“This was really stressful… It would be great if we had enough capacity in Santa Fe and Los Alamos counties for non-emergency situations to not tax the Albuquerque emergency services,” she says.
Welcome says her emergency clinic is seeing an uptick in preventable medical problems, such as a statewide spike in parvo infections.
The parvo virus is transmitted through feces, and can survive in the ground and on surfaces for up to a year. The disease it causes, which can be deadly to puppies, is easily preventable through a series of vaccinations that are administered to pups every two to three weeks until they reach four to six months of age.
Yet this solution was inaccessible to many New Mexico residents during the pandemic as the shutdown forced pet owners to wait weeks and even months for appointments.
“We’ve seen more parvo this year than I think we ever have before, and that’s because people weren’t vaccinating their pets when they got puppies,” says Welcome. “Our parvo ward has not been empty in over a year.”
Route 66 and the Española Humane Society are among the many clinics that report they are desperate to hire additional veterinarians and vet techs to deal with the increased demand. But there is no veterinary school in the state, and Welcome says this makes it hard to find qualified candidates to fill vacant positions.
The strain of the demand is palpable in the voices of staff members and voicemail messages at the clinics SFR called for this story.
At some, harried staff members tell SFR directors and doctors are too busy to be interviewed.
“Normally we have four vets, but now we only have one. We are slammed,” the woman who answers the phone at the Valley Veterinary Clinic in Pojoaque tells SFR.
The voicemail for Route 66 bears a direct plea to clients: “Due to the COVID-19 virus we are seeing an unprecedented number of patients,” a woman’s voice says in the recording. “We are doing our very best to see each and every one of your pets as fast as we can without compromising medical care. As a result, our wait times have increased significantly.”
Pre-pandemic, two animal hospitals in Santa Fe offered after-hours emergency and urgent care services, but one shut down and the other reduced its hours, forcing pet owners from across the northern reaches of the state to drive to Albuquerque to seek care.
As a result, Welcome says the demand for her clinic has increased three-fold. She says she hired a veterinary social worker this year to help her staff members deal with stress and exhaustion and mediate conflicts with upset clients.
Welcome says she’s never had to deal with so many aggressive pet owners taking their anger and desperation out on her staff.
Leroy Campos, clinic lead at the Animal Clinic of Los Alamos, says the silver lining may be that the pandemic has shone a light on the role veterinary professionals play in pet lovers’ daily lives—and the challenges they faced even before COVID-19.
“It has really shown that we are essential workers...,” he says. “I think it’s brought more awareness to the veterinary profession.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled and identified Rowan Welcome’s name and job title.