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Veterinarian shortage leaves Rochester pets without overnight emergency care

Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Service business sign.
Max Schulte
Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Service at 825 White Spruce Blvd., across from the Monroe Community College campus.

One of the Rochester area's largest emergency veterinary practices has curtailed its business hours once again.

Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Services in Brighton was once the region's only 24-hour veterinary hospital. That changed in January 2022 when VSES, citing a staff shortage, eliminated its overnight hours and closed from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

VSES announced this week that its daily opening has now been pushed back to 8 a.m. In addition, the practice will no longer provide overnight hospitalization for pets.

"Unfortunately, we no longer have emergency medical staff coverage to support cases after operating hours," said Mariya Barnes, a spokesperson for Thrive Pet Healthcare, VSES's parent company.

The news is a blow to pet owners like Deb Schmidt of Rochester, who has six cats. She felt fortunate when she was able to get her sick kitten treated at Ark Animal Hospital in Henrietta on Saturday.

"He was losing fluid faster than you could replace it, and that is not something, with a 2-pound kitten, you can let go," she said.

But Schmidt does wonder what she would do if something like that happened when access to care was not readily available.

"There is that kind of gut-wrenching panic that you feel when you're starting to get the wheels turning in your head of how you're gonna handle whatever's come up suddenly," Schmidt said.

Business owners like Mark Patrick of Tuxedo's K9 Training Camp in Rochester are also worried.

The dog day care and boarding facility is open around the clock, and Patrick said dogs in his care sometimes do require emergency veterinary care at night.

"We have dogs that come that have seizures, heart issues, diabetics," he said. "You name it, we have it."

Within the past two weeks, Patrick said, a client's dog suffered a seizure late at night. Unable to get emergency care in the Rochester area, the dog's owner was on their way to a veterinary medical center over an hour away in Orchard Park when the dog died.

"That 45 minutes to an hour is a critical time for all emergencies, and we need to step up and we need to take responsibility for our community and for our pets," Patrick said.

Lack of access to veterinary care is not new, and it is not unique to Rochester. It is an ongoing problem throughout the U.S., fueled by veterinary professionals struggling with compassion fatigue, long hours, and low pay.

In an attempt to improve their pay and working conditions, veterinary technicians and other employees at VSES voted to join a union in January 2022. Negotiations between union representatives and Thrive have yet to result in a contract.

On Friday, the union released a statement to WXXI News regarding the reduced operating hours at VSES, saying members are devastated that they can no longer offer overnight care to pets in the community.

The statement said the hospital's support staff is sufficient to continue providing the care, but due to a lack of veterinarians, they are unable to.

"While we wait for information from Thrive, the overnight staff remains uncertain of their futures," the statement read. "The negotiating committee is ready to bargain with Thrive to impact as few of the dedicated staff as possible."

The union is encouraging pet owners to stay up to date with their pets' annual exams, vaccinations, and parasite prevention and to call their veterinarian as soon as they notice anything about their pet's health that concerns them.

With VSES no longer providing overnight hospitalization, what does this mean for pets who are hospitalized there?

Barnes said there are two approaches, depending on the severity of the situation.

"For cases requiring specialized attention, we facilitate the introduction and communication with other ER hospitals in the area to help patients access the care they need," she said. "In situations where monitoring at home is feasible, our team provides pet families with the guidelines for overnight care until they can return to our facility."

The prospect of having to transport a pet to Buffalo or Syracuse for emergency care is worrisome to local pet rescue organizations.

"If they can even see us," said Tami Becker, a volunteer board member at GRASP. "We could call and see if they have availability, but it's going to be an hour and a half before we can get there."

Becker said the foster-based rescue sometimes has hundreds of cats and dogs in its care, many whose owners cannot afford to pay for their veterinary care.

"They might be injured, hit by a car, any number of scenarios," Becker said. "Often, we need them to be seen immediately, and because of the lag in appointment times at our multiple vets that we use in the community, we have to reach out to emergency services."

It may be some time, Barnes said, before VSES is able to hire more veterinarians due to the nationwide shortage.

Pittsford Animal Hospital, also owned by Thrive, offers urgent care by appointment.

Outside of the Rochester area, the following practices provide 24-hour emergency care:

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.