Staffing issues that have reshaped the U.S. job market in the aftermath of COVID-19 are now hitting the veterinary profession hard, and New Jersey is not immune.

Dr. Megan Edelle, who owns a practice in Morris County and is the president of the New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association, said the Garden State has been "definitely suffering pretty heavily."

Practices cannot find enough qualified candidates to fill vacancies, Edelle said, and so many may no longer be open seven, six, or even five days a week.

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That's tightening up appointment availability, meaning pets may not be able to be examined at their vet's office within 24 to 48 hours of an urgent issue.

"Infections, diarrhea, gastrointestinal upset, things like that that should be seen, they're just not able to book them an appointment for two to three weeks," Edelle said.

In addition, Edelle said part of a veterinarian's job is to diagnose early-onset problems that pet owners may not notice at home.

But just as human patients abandoned things like mammograms and colon cancer screenings during the pandemic, the staffing and appointment crunches are cutting down on veterinary well visits.

"A lot of pets are not getting treated for things that they theoretically should be seen and treated for, because there just simply aren't enough hands," Edelle said. "I think the fact that patients can't get wellness exams booked in a timely fashion is leading to some advancement in conditions that potentially could have been picked up earlier in these pets."

At the other end of the care spectrum, Edelle said emergency hospitals are "completely overwhelmed" to the point where she has to call emergency rooms ahead of time on behalf of her clientele, to see if there are enough available cages.

An early-pandemic adoption surge coupled with short-staffed vet offices means ERs are increasingly treating pets for what would typically be considered minor concerns, and wait times are longer.

Although not imminent, help is on the way. Edelle said New Jersey is preparing to open its first in-state veterinary school, which will eventually cut down on the "brain drain" evident for many years in students who opt to attend institutes of higher learning out of state.

"Our New Jersey students that wanted to become veterinarians would go to vet school in other states, and it's hard to get them back to New Jersey after they leave," Edelle said.

The only drawback? The school is not supposed to open until 2025, meaning its first class won't graduate and get into the workforce until 2029.

Patrick Lavery is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com

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