DULUTH — Michael Hargrove, owner and veterinarian at North Shore Vet Hospital, sent out a lengthy email to his clients over the summer informing them of the various stressors the industry faces, including an increase in demand that many are struggling to match, and what they’re doing to adapt.

“Practice after practice had the best year ever in 2020,” said Hargrove, who also does financial advising for vets around the country. “It was a boom for veterinarians. There’s no question that around the country veterinarians are crazy busy, but it’s leading to a lot of problems. It’s almost too busy.”

On top of that, the pool of certified veterinary technicians applicants in the Twin Ports area has dried up with the closure of the Duluth Business School in 2018. Countless clinics aren't taking on new clients and the region’s only emergency animal hospital, BluePearl Vet Hospital in Duluth, is now no longer able to staff its facility seven days a week.

When the News Tribune reached out to BluePearl, a media specialist responded with a statement saying the company would “not be commenting on this topic at this time.”

It’s unclear what exactly led to the rise in people seeking veterinary care and whether the pandemic-pet-ownership boom narrative is correct. Shelters are the most common way people acquire new pets, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the number of pets adopted from U.S. shelters in 2020 was the lowest it’s been in five years.

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Many veterinarians, like Hargrove, suspect all the time people started spending at home and observing their pets played a large role, as did a backlog of care delayed during the early stages of the pandemic.

“So many people are working from home when they didn’t use to and now they see when their dog’s coughing, their cat’s throwing up, they're limping, they’re scratching. Maybe they didn’t notice that before because they were gone,” he said. “They’re more connected to their pets.”

North Shore Veterinary Hospital owner Michael Hargrove talks with visitors Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
North Shore Veterinary Hospital owner Michael Hargrove talks with visitors Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Minimizing stress on the ER

With more people seeking care and fewer workers to provide it, Hargrove and his team at North Shore Vet Hospital are encouraging clients to help them minimize stress on the emergency hospital.

“We’re really trying to help the ER because that helps us, too. We want people to really try to avoid using the ER except for the most serious things,” Hargrove said. “The problem is, if they use the ER for the things that aren’t serious, then when they have the serious thing they can’t use the ER.”

BluePearl is no longer open Tuesday nights through the early Wednesday morning, when regular practices open. To fill that void, North Shore Vet Hospital is now open Tuesday nights, but only to existing clients who can use a phone answering service called Guardian Vets, which is staffed by doctors and technicians who help people determine if their concern is serious enough to call someone in.

Waters Edge Animal Hospital and Urgent Care in Duluth provides urgent care to during its 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours Monday through Saturday. The hospital, as well as a few other veterinary clinics and hospitals around the Northland, didn’t respond to the News Tribune’s request for an interview

Hargrove also introduced clients to an app called Petriage, which they’re asking people to use prior to bringing their animal to BluePearl in order to gauge whether an animal’s symptoms are an emergency.

Addressing lack of vet techs

It’s all part of a thought-through effort to take care of both patients and those working in veterinary care, who are more prone to career turnover when compared to other professions in health care.

Veterinary technician Brittany Simcock holds one of a litter of six puppies brought to North Shore Veterinary Hospital for a checkup Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Veterinary technician Brittany Simcock holds one of a litter of six puppies brought to North Shore Veterinary Hospital for a checkup Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Veterinary technicians, who experience some of the highest turnover rates, have an average career length of about five years with some of the biggest issues they cite being low wages that average $14-$16, burnout and underutilization of skills, according to the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America.

Minnesota is one of nine states in the country that does not regulate the veterinary technician profession, meaning anyone can be a veterinary technician but only those who undergo schooling are considered “certified.”

People like Kim Horne, with the Minnesota Association of Veterinary Technicians, are pushing for legislation that would change that. Horne, a certified veterinary technician, has been involved in an effort to require certification among technicians since 2006. Now she finally feels the idea is getting traction.

“The goal of the legislation is to try and mirror, a little bit more, the human health care system, where you have different levels of nurses and assistants,” Horne said. “People often leave the profession and go into human nursing. There are jobs that pay better.”

Minnesota has four schools with accredited veterinary technicians programs, with Vermillion Community College in Ely the only program north of the Twin Cities. The program’s coordinator, Peter Hughes said some of his students are graduating and simply getting better offers in other fields and believes regulating the profession.

“Many vet practices in Minnesota have someone come in off the street. They say, ‘This person is hardworking. They seem bright. I’ll train them on the job for what they need to do,’” said Hughes, who was a practicing veterinarian for 25 years. “They quickly become competent and do a good job. On the other hand, that’s not what your nurse goes through. If you’re not required to have any education to do the job, there’s not that much incentive to go to school for it.”

Those advocating for the change also believe it would lead to less career turnover because wages would improve and the skill set of a technician would be taken more seriously, and therefore better utilized leading to more job satisfaction.

Veterinary assistant Molly Meyhoefer examines four of a litter of six 2½-week-old puppies brought to North Shore Veterinary Hospital for a checkup Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
Veterinary assistant Molly Meyhoefer examines four of a litter of six 2½-week-old puppies brought to North Shore Veterinary Hospital for a checkup Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The Minnesota House of Representatives has authored a bill and a state senator has stated willingness to author one in the Senate, Horne said. Legislation introducing technicians in the Veterinary Practice Act was introduced in the 2021 session, with hearings and testimonies expected in the 2022 session.

Maria Nellessen, a certified technician with the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association, stressed that the legislation would also ensure a higher standard of care for the public.

“(A non-certified veterinary technician) working in a clinic is never getting continuing education. It’s a medical profession. There’s always something new,” Nellessen said. “There’s so many changes. People need to stay on top of that.”

No one would lose their job under the proposed legislation, Horne said, adding that noncertified technicians would still be able to do their jobs, but they just would have to refer to themselves as an assistant.

Northwood Technical College in Wisconsin, formerly called WITC, has an accredited program on its New Richmond campus and has received requests from local practices to expand its program to the Superior campus.

“(T)hat is a possibility in the future and something we are exploring,” the college’s spokesperson, Jena Vogtman said in a statement. “Part of the goal was to get the program accredited before we consider expansion to any other campuses.”

The program started in fall 2019 and was accredited in February. This fall 87 students are enrolled in the program that Vogtman said always has a long waiting list of applicants.

“We have a huge need up here,” Hargrove said. “They’d all get employed.”

Until the situation changes, Hargrove strongly encouraged current and soon-to-be pet owners to plan way ahead for routine vet visits.