Juneau pet owners are scrambling for care as one of the city’s three veterinary offices closes. The vet shortage isn’t just a Juneau or Alaska problem. It’s part of a national trend – as practicing vets retire, there are no new ones to fill the void.
On a sunny and windy Tuesday in April, a dozen cars were parked outside Juneau’s Animal Rescue. They were trying to get a place in a new weekly vaccination clinic.
Riley O’Connor was waiting with her two cats. The kitten hid under the seat while the older cat, Margot, sat on her lap.
A large bowl with O’Connor’s lunch salad sat on the center console – it had been out for two hours. She came because her regular vet, Southeast Alaska Animal Medical Center, announced on social media that it was closing for the next two months.
“I have nowhere to go really for vaccines,” O’Connor said. “The baby needs his microchip and rabies, and I couldn’t get in with anyone else.”
Southeast Alaska Animal Medical Center did not respond to requests for comment, but a Facebook post makes it clear that the pandemic, staffing shortages and supply chain issues have contributed to the choice to close. Two of the clinic’s doctors have recently retired.
The vet crisis has caused the local non-profit rescue operation to open vaccination clinics, though their main goal is to get homeless pets adopted.
“This is a significant need in the community, and we can only so much of that,” said Juneau Animal Rescue Executive Director Sam Blankenship. She stepped out into the parking lot in a high-visibility vest to manage waiting vehicles. She said people have mostly been patient.
“We are doing the best we can. People started lining up at 12:30 p.m. for a clinic that starts at 2:00 p.m.,” she said.
The rescue has just hired a vet in an effort to make up for the shortage by providing some basic care services, like these clinics and some wellness checkups. Blankenship says she hopes this will open up appointments at veterinary practices for more complicated needs.
“I know a lot of people are really concerned about how they’re going to access their pets’ health care and other things. Me too, because I also own a pet. So the fact is there is a nationwide shortage of vets and it is expected to continue for the next ten years,” Blankenship said.
The shortage to which she refers has been reported by national veterinary associations, and vets nationwide have warned that a dwindling number of vets and vet techs means more animals could be denied care. Factors like burnout are a cause. Turnover in the veterinary field is the highest of any medical practice — twice as many veterinarians retire each year as doctors.
Blankenship urges people to be kind as they work to care for their animals. She hopes affected residents will organize to help recruit new vets ready to move to Juneau.
Back in the parking lot, Lee Parker waits with his two retired sled dogs, Osprey and Chinook.
Parker says she’s been taking her pets to Southeast Alaska Animal Medical Center for about 50 years. Now it’s his only option. She said other local vets were too busy for new clients.
“Just a few months ago when I had a very serious emergency, I couldn’t get my dog to a vet,” she said.
She shook her head and let out a deep sigh as she talked about her options for having Chinook, her geriatric dog, checked out. She hopes a new vet will take over the Southeast practice.
“Otherwise, have a great road trip. Take them to Canada or to the South. So the options are not good right now,” she said.
From Juneau it is not a casual trip. This requires either a ferry and a car ride or a flight with the dogs.
She says after all this time, she will be sorry to see the firm close for good.
“When I came here in the mid-1970s, there was only one clinic in town. It was southeast, and they were just a tiny little shack,” Parker said.
She said this cabin was right next to the Juneau Animal Rescue parking lot where she was waiting. Cars were idling in the sun and a sign in the driveway said, “Clinic full.” Please come back next week!”