VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - At Animal Medical Center in Virginia Beach, it's 8 a.m., the day is just getting started and phones are already ringing off the hook.
"If you're going to curse at me, I'm going to have to get off the phone with you," a receptionist calmly responds to one angry caller.
It's a typical day at a clinic that's been slammed with patients since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We went from having three phone lines and only needing three phone lines to all of a sudden making lots more [calls] on those lines," said Dr. Ashley Powell, a veterinarian at Animal Medical Center.
She estimates appointments have risen 30 percent over the past year as a result of a surge in pet ownership during the pandemic. At the same time, finding enough help in a profession notoriously difficult to staff has been difficult.
Coupled with COVID-19 protocols, wait times have increased and, as a result, encounters with rude and unruly clients have also gone up.
"We have a lot of people call and they get really frustrated with us. Just know that on our end, we're working as hard as we can to get as many pets seen as we can," said Powell, who also serves as President of the Coastal Virginia Veterinary Medical Association, an organization made up of area veterinary clinics.
Powell says virtual meetings with other association members revealed shared problems.
In response, the group hired a public relations firm and is starting a new outreach campaign called Paws to be Kind, asking clients to be aware their veterinary clinic is likely overwhelmed and to have understanding.
It also asks for timely arrival to appointments, and if a person is going to be extremely late or unable to make it, to call ahead so the appointment time can be filled by another pet wanting to be seen.
The campaign covers general practice clinics as well as local emergency clinics, which are also seeing a big increase in visits.
"We're seeing an influx in both emergent cases and less critical ones and unfortunately, the less critical ones are experiencing longer wait times and that's frustrating for a lot of clients," said Dr. Sarah Meador, lead veterinarian at Acredale Animal Hospital in Virginia Beach, one of a handful of local clinics that handles general appointments and emergencies.
Traditionally a general practice veterinarian, Meador has had to switch roles to emergency to cover ongoing staffing shortages in a field where burnout is a very real possibility.
"It's typically a 12-hour shift. I don't generally have time to do any callbacks until the end of my shift though, which ends up being 14, 15 hours most days," she tells News 3.
But despite the challenges, Meador still loves the job she's wanted to do since she was a little girl.
"If clients have said 'Thank you' and I've helped a lot of patients, it's rewarding and I go home feeling appreciated."