Pet owners scramble for care as a Juneau veterinary office closes

Osprey and Chinook, retired sled dogs, wait in the Juneau Animal Rescue parking lot for shots. (Stremple/KTOO)

Juneau’s pet owners are scrambling for care as one of the city’s three veterinary offices closes. The vet shortage is not just a Juneau or an Alaska problem. It’s part of a nationwide trend — as practicing vets retire, there aren’t new ones to fill the gap.

On a sunny, blustery Tuesday this April, a dozen cars were parked outside of Juneau’s Animal Rescue. They were trying to get a slot at a new, weekly vaccine clinic.

Riley O’Connor waited with her two cats. The kitten hid under the seat while the older cat, Margot, sat in her lap.

A big bowl with O’Connor’s lunch salad rested on the center console — she had been outside for two hours. She came because her usual vet, Southeast Alaska Animal Medical Center, announced on social media that it is closing its doors over the next couple of months.

Riley O’Connor and her cat Margot wait for an a rabies and microchip appointment at Juneau Animal Rescue’s Tuesday Vaccine Clinic. (Stremple/KTOO)

“I have nowhere else to really go for vaccines,” O’Connor said. “The baby needs his microchip and rabies, and I wasn’t able to get in with anyone else.”

Southeast Alaska Animal Medical Center didn’t respond to requests for comment, but a Facebook post makes it clear that the pandemic, staff shortages and supply chain woes contributed to the choice to close. Two of the clinic’s doctors retired recently.

The vet crunch has the local nonprofit rescue operation opening up vaccine clinics even though their main focus is getting homeless pets adopted.

“It’s a large need in the community, and we can only meet so much of it,” said Juneau Animal Rescue executive director Sam Blankenship. She popped out to the parking lot in a high viz vest to manage waiting vehicles. She said people have mostly been patient.

“We’re doing the best we can. People started lining up at 12:30 for a clinic that starts at 2:00,” she said.

The rescue just hired a veterinarian with an aim to offset the shortage by offering some basic care services, like these clinics and some wellness exams. Blankenship say she hopes it opens up appointments at veterinary offices for more complicated needs.

“I know a lot of people are really concerned about how are they going to get access for their pets’ health care and different stuff. As well as am I, because I’m a pet owner as well. So the fact of the matter is that there’s a nationwide veterinary shortage and it’s projected to continue for the next ten years,” Blankenship said.

The shortage she’s referring to has been flagged by national veterinary associations, and vets nationwide have warned that a diminishing number of vets and vet technicians means more animals could be denied care. Factors like burnout are one cause. Turnover in the veterinary field is the highest of any medical practice — twice as many vets retire each year as medical doctors.

Blankenship urges people to be kind as they work to secure care for their animals. She’s hoping concerned residents will organize to help recruit new vets willing to move to Juneau.

People started lining up more than an hour before Juneau Animal Rescue’s vaccine clinic opened. (Stremple/KTOO)

Back in the parking lot, Lee Parker is waiting with her 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, this is her only option. She said other local vets are too busy for new clients.

“Just a couple of months ago, when I had a really bad emergency, I couldn’t get my dog into any veterinarian,” she said.

She shook her head and let out a deep breath when she talked about her options to get a checkup for Chinook, her geriatric dog. She’s hoping a new vet takes over the Southeast’s practice.

“If not, do a major road trip. Take them either to Canada or down South. So options are not good right now,” she said.

From Juneau, that not a casual trip. It requires either a ferry and a drive or flying with the dogs.

She says after all this time, she’ll be sorry to see the practice close for good.

“When I came here in the mid-70s, there was only one clinic in town. It was Southeast, and they were just a little bitty shack,” Parker said.

She said that shack used to be right next to the Juneau Animal Rescue parking lot where she was waiting. Cars idled in the sun, and a sign in the driveway read: “Clinic full. Please come back next week!”

Claire Stremple

Alaska News Reporter, KTOO

I believe every Alaskan has a right to timely information about their health and health systems, and their natural environment and its management. My goal is to report thoughtful stories that inform, inspire and quench the curiosity of listeners across the state.

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