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In Tampa Bay, a national vet shortage collides with a growing population

Pet owners are seeing higher prices and extended wait times.
Allison Ramirez (left), 27, certified vet technician, and Naomi DeRamus (right), 22, surgery assistant, cut cats' nails after they were neutered at the The Humane Society of Tampa Bay on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, in Tampa.
Allison Ramirez (left), 27, certified vet technician, and Naomi DeRamus (right), 22, surgery assistant, cut cats' nails after they were neutered at the The Humane Society of Tampa Bay on Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, in Tampa. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]
Published Aug. 23

When Eric Mondschein opened his first veterinary practice in Tampa two years ago, he had a harder time finding workers than he did attracting clients.

The practice, housed in an old auto-body shop off Florida Avenue, filled a void in the growing Tampa Heights neighborhood. But Mondschein said he initially struggled to get resumes for enough staff to keep up with demand.

“The hours, the fatigue, the demands from the clients have certainly worn down a lot of people in the profession,” Mondschein said.

While Mondschein has made hires since then, other animal hospitals across the Tampa area are facing the same challenge: too many animals, and not enough people trained to care for them.

Across the U.S., the number of pet owners has grown while more veterinarians have left the field and universities don’t produce enough graduates to replace them. In Tampa Bay, local vets say those trends have collided with the region’s growing population, making it difficult to keep clinics fully staffed.

The result, they say, is higher costs and longer wait times for animals to receive care, with fewer veterinarians responsible for treating a growing number of pets.

“The fact that Tampa is such a hot spot and people want to live here, that’s great,” said Danyelle Ho, director of shelter operations at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. “But the problem is only going to get worse for us.”

Too many animals, not enough vets

The Humane Society’s clinic serves thousands of animals from its location on Armenia Avenue. That hospital has historically been open seven days a week, even during the pandemic.

In September, the hospital plans to close on Sundays. It’s not for a lack of animals needing care, Ho said, but because of a shortage of staff to keep the clinic running.

“A few years ago, we were able to recruit for those positions within our community, or at least within our state,” Ho said. “Now we’re looking outside of Florida to try to recruit vets to come here.”

Other practices have made similar cutbacks. Clinics are also trying to offer better pay and more flexible work hours, though that’s not easy to do as demand rises.

Pet owners have felt the consequences, passed on in the form of higher prices and extended wait times.

The shortage is also having a real impact on animal care, said James Barr, chief medical officer at BluePearl Pet Hospital, a national chain of emergency veterinary services that has multiple locations in the Tampa Bay area.

Barr said BluePearl has noticed an uptick since the pandemic began in infectious diseases that animals are typically vaccinated against.

And as local practices become overwhelmed, they send more and more cases to emergency vets, pushing back wait times for animals facing serious conditions that aren’t necessarily life-threatening, he said.

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The veterinary profession has always been demanding, Ho said, with irregular hours, sometimes distraught clients and the emotional distress that comes with caring for suffering animals.

The pandemic only put more pressure on an already-stressed system, she said. People stuck at home adopted more animals, while those who already had pets spent more time with them — meaning they had opportunities to pick up on medical issues and strange behaviors they would’ve otherwise overlooked. At the same time, clinics were scrambling to adapt to new COVID-19 protocols.

Some overburdened veterinarians and technicians left the industry, Mondschein said. Others pivoted to relief work, which allows them to set their own hours filling in at practices across the region.

A growing market

Denise Ginex, the owner and only full-time vet at South Tampa Veterinary Care, remembers seeing as many as 28 patients a day at the peak of the pandemic.

At one point, mid-conversation with a client, the exhaustion of non-stop appointments caught up to her. She remembers sitting down in the bushes outside her clinic — an unassuming building tucked beside a Dollar Tree just off Dale Mabry Highway — and deciding to call it a day.

Ginex canceled the rest of her appointments and called her mother to pick her up, too tired to drive herself.

Though things have leveled out since then, Ginex continues to see 18 to 20 pets per day, often making calls during her lunch break to keep up. She’s still accepting new clients, she said, but she’s doing so at a slower pace to make sure her existing patients are cared for.

Though they’ve had to adapt, Ginex and Mondschein’s practices are managing to keep up with demand. But the influx of new residents to the Tampa area — including pet owners — has put more strain on practices like theirs.

Ginex has watched new apartment buildings sprout up across her South Tampa neighborhood. Even if only a third of the new occupants are pet owners, it’ll be enough to provide a steady supply of new clients for the handful of animal hospitals south of Gandy Boulevard, she said.

For months Ginex has been trying to bring another vet on staff. Like other practices in the area, she hasn’t had much luck.

“I’ve got no answers to my ads yet, since May,” Ginex said, reclining in a desk chair beneath a canvas print of her pet Doberman, Jock. Her cat, Cricket, perched on a filing cabinet across the office, confined to a carrier. “Nothing. Not a text, not an email, not a call.”

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