In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, over 23 million American families adopted a pet, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. This massive increase in adoptions created an acute need for both veterinarians and emergency care in a field already stretched thin. Richmond has not been immune to these challenges.
Deborah Cohen remembers trying to find emergency care for her 7-year-old toy poodle, Lucy, in February 2022. Lucy had appeared to be recovering from an illness, but one Saturday night her health took a turn for the worse. An emergency veterinarian Cohen had gone to before was closed both at night and on Sundays, so in the morning, says Cohen, “I started calling emergency vets, and either they were not open or it was an hours and hours wait.”
A clinic that didn’t have any appointments available recommended another that opened at noon. “But by 11, 11:30, she was dead,” says Cohen.
Ashley Miller-Quarles, the medical director at BluePearl Pet Hospital in Richmond, hears stories like this often. As she points out, our interview was difficult to schedule due to the shortage of veterinarians and staff in the area. “As an industry, we’ve had a lot of attrition in our field, particularly after COVID,” she says.
Veterinarians are experiencing burnout, Miller-Quarles says. “Everyone is asking for more doctors, and it’s hard to work 24 hours a day. Our shifts are 12 hours. If you’re not used to working overnight shifts, or you’ve done it for a really long time, it can be really challenging and hard on your body.”
In addition, Miller-Quarles says, “It’s a bit of a higher emotional burden with emergency veterinarians. We’re trying to establish a relationship with a patient in an hour” that would normally have developed over the pet’s lifetime of care with its general care veterinarian.
As a result, “We had a lot of people leaving the field,” Miller-Quarles says, “and they aren’t just leaving for a short period of time, they are leaving for their lifetime.” Colleagues have moved to pharmaceutical companies and other fields that are related to veterinary medicine but have less direct contact with animals, she says.
The large increase in pets during the pandemic created a commensurate increase in veterinary care, Miller-Quarles says. The trend puts pressure on the clinics. “We have to see more [pets] with less people,” she says. “Even if our waiting room is empty, that doesn’t mean that our ICU isn’t full.”
As challenging as the situation is, there are signs of improvement. Between 2020 and 2022, there was a 7.64% increase in licenses issued to veterinary technicians, according to the Virginia Department of Health Professions. This is no small development. The hiring of LVTs can allow an emergency vet to expand its hours, accept more patients and take some pressure off overworked colleagues. BluePearl was able to expand its emergency services hours after hiring several LVTs.
There also have been more urgent care facilities opening in the area. Like an urgent care for people, these facilities see patients with non-life-threatening illnesses, such as vomiting, sneezing or limping, outside other veterinarians’ normal business hours. “Now some patients are being seen at the urgent care facilities instead of coming to the ER,” says Miller-Quarles.
However, after-hours care in the region remains scant. Although there are eight emergency veterinary clinics in the Richmond area, only one of them, the Cary Street location of Virginia Veterinary Centers, is open 24 hours a day, year-round. (The other 24-hour emergency vets, BluePearl and Veterinary Referral & Critical Care in Manakin-Sabot, are closed Saturdays and Sundays, respectively).
A new option, Partner Veterinary, which already operates an urgent care center in Short Pump, is building an emergency facility at 1616 Three Chopt Road that is expected to open later this year.
Zoom in on personalized at-home pet care
Like telemedicine for humans, virtual vets offer consultation and treatment recommendations from licensed veterinarians through phone or video platforms. In place of a traditional physical exam, the virtual vet will ask you questions regarding your pet’s behavior or symptoms to formulate a treatment plan.
One platform that connects pet parents to affordable and quality pet health care is called Vetster.com. It’s easy to use and intuitive — you select the health concerns your pet is experiencing and your location, and the software matches you with licensed vets with a range of fees.
Dr. Sree Rao, a veterinarian with over 1,700 positive reviews, is licensed in the Richmond area and specializes in treating pets with skin and ear issues. He comments that he can also “perform dietary, nutritional and behavioral consultations, and answer questions related to general health and wellness.”
Many reviews on Vetster remark on the convenience of virtual vet care. One user, Mirza Alfaro, wrote that she “loved the convenience of being able to quickly visit with a vet to address a minor eye infection for my pup.”
There are limitations to virtual veterinary care. It’s not appropriate in emergency situations or where direct physical intervention is needed. Diagnostic tests, such as bloodwork, X-rays or ultrasounds, require office visits.
While some local clinics, like Bon Air Animal Hospital, Fan Veterinary Clinic and Broad Street Veterinary Hospital, discontinued virtual vet care when the COVID-19 pandemic eased, platforms like Vetster make online appointments accessible for those who still need them. —Audrey McGovern
Insurance can help make vet visits more affordable
Just as people use health insurance to help pay their unexpected and often expensive medical bills, pet insurance covers all or a portion of the policyholder’s veterinary bills. Companies such as Embrace, Figo, Spot and ManyPets — as well as an increasing number of major carriers like State Farm, Geico and Nationwide — provide coverage for breed-specific conditions, cancer treatments, emergency care, surgery, hospitalization and nursing care. Most pet insurance companies also offer plans that cover routine care for cats and dogs, which includes annual exams, spay and neuter procedures, and vaccines.
Most pet insurance providers work on a reimbursement basis. Policyholders pay their veterinarian directly after an appointment and then submit the receipt to their insurance provider for reimbursement based on their policy.
The monthly average cost of pet insurance is $29 for cats and $49 for dogs. Dogs, larger pets, older pets and companions that reside in more densely populated areas tend to cost more to insure. —Gray Pershing
Animal Medical Center
13821 Fribble Way, Midlothian, 804-575-3086
Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; closed Sundays. Call for an appointment.
Betty Baugh’s Animal Clinic
5322 Patterson Ave., Richmond, 804-719-6506
Monday-Saturday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Sundays. Call for an appointment.
BluePearl Pet Hospital (formerly Dogwood Veterinary Center)
5918 W. Broad St., Richmond, 804-716-4700
Open 24 hours from 7 p.m. Wednesday to 7 a.m. Tuesday; closed 7 a.m. Tuesday to 7 p.m. Wednesday. Call ahead; no appointment necessary.
Capital Home Veterinary Care (mobile clinic)
Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed weekends. Call for an appointment.
Partner Veterinary Urgent Care
6506 W. Broad St., Richmond, 804-206-9122
Saturday-Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; closed Fridays. Call for an appointment.
Veterinary Referral & Critical Care
1596 Hockett Road, Manakin-Sabot, 804-784-8722
Open 24 hours Monday-Friday; closed 7 p.m. Saturday to 8 a.m. Monday. No appointment necessary.
Virginia Veterinary Centers (two locations)
3312 W. Cary St., Richmond, 804-353-9000
ER open 24/7/365. No appointment necessary.
2460 Colony Crossing Pl., Midlothian, 804-744-9800
Hours vary. No appointment necessary.