Thursday, May 19, 2022     Volume: 23, Issue: 12

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on October 12th, 2021, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 22, Issue 33 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 22, Issue 33

Veterinarians, animal services remain strained across Santa Barbara County amid pandemic's impact


Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp portrays two dogs from different worlds who find each other and fall in love. But after crossing paths with the villainous animal control officer, they’re separated and thrown in prison-like cells. 

Such depictions by Disney and other movie producers have been “awful” for Animal Services’ reputation, said Ginger White, Santa Barbara County Animal Services director of medicine. 

A puppy rests after getting fixed at the Santa Barbara County Animal Services Department, which performed several back-to-back spay and neuter surgeries during a recent weekday.

“We are all struggling with the public perception of the work we do here. The people that do work here work so hard and their work means so much to them … but we’re the easy villain,” White said.

The reality is that the Animal Services Department provides a multitude of services including adoption and fostering opportunities, low-cost spay and neuter drives, vaccine clinics, and microchipping, White said. 

But now the pandemic and its lasting effects are pushing vets—in public, private, and nonprofit practices—into continued crisis mode because of months-long waits for surgeries, general appointments, and vaccinations, White said.

“What’s happening in private practice and in the emergency rooms is a lot of staff attrition. A lot of it is related to the pandemic because people are either out on quarantine, home sick, or home because of child care, or other personal reasons,” White said. 

Short staffing changed productivity rates, and COVID-19 safety measures—like disinfecting and cleaning protocols, and curbside care—caused longer wait times and more frustrated clients, she said. 

“Some data is showing that existing pet owners have been asking for more services as well. So they’re wanting more and more done for their pets—which is showing a healthy growth for the industry—but [it’s] coming in at a time where perhaps many practices aren’t equipped to deal with that growth,” White said. 

People end up taking pets to emergency hospitals because they can’t get in to their regular practitioner, filling up hospitals with minor problems like ear infections, parasite control, or medications, she said.

“Things like ear infections aren’t emergencies, so when there’s three animals coming in and they’ve been hit by cars, that ear infection is going to wait for six to eight hours to be seen,” White continued. 

In response, Animal Services provided pet veterinary care when it normally provides services for turned-in animals and rescued strays, Supervising Vet Technician Becky Clement said. 

“We’ve started doing public surgeries [again], but we have limited access to veterinarians who can do those surgeries for us. Our own veterinarians are swamped with doing our own animals, so scheduling additional days for public animals has been really hard for us,” Clement said.

Santa Barbara County Animal Services averaged between 85 to 110 animals in care on a daily basis, and saw 473 animals taken in during September, with numbers going up already in October, Clement said. 

The Santa Maria location currently has six vets on staff, including White, but all veterinarians are contracted and work at other organizations as well, Clement said. 

There are three registered veterinary technicians (RVTs) like Clement on staff. RVTs are the equivalent of registered nurses in veterinary science, but earn about a quarter of a nurse’s salary, which contributes to staff loss.

County Animal Services Director of Medicine White said the American Veterinary Medical Association conducted a 2020 study and found that veterinarians and staff are more than twice as likely to leave the field than medical doctors, and RVTs are more likely to leave the field than any other medical professional. 

“I say the primary reason for that is the work-life balance and mental health struggles. There’s high levels of burnout stress and anxiety by coming into shelter medicine where we see high amounts of neglect and abuse cases,” White said. 

Stress also comes from wages, cost of living, and debt-to-income ratios for this field. Veterinarians are graduating with upwards of $250,000 to $300,000 in student loans and they’re facing a starting salary around $80,000 per year ($41 per hour), White said.

“They get out of school and land their dream job, but they can’t even buy a car, they can’t afford to live. It’s a big issue,” she added. “There’s not a lot of people with an RVT license, and there’s even less assistants. They would make more money at Starbucks.” 

Responsible Pet Ownership Program Coordinator Jessica Ortega-Wiebe stepped out of her previous vet technician role at Santa Barbara County Animal Services due to a decline in her mental health. 

“I have burned out physically and mentally from that. I’ve been working in medicine since I was 18 years old working in kennels and working my way through it,” she said, “I’ve been here almost 10 years and I won’t step a foot [into that role] unless they absolutely need help in that capacity as far as a technician.”

In the recent months, Ortega-Wiebe monitored anesthesia to help animal services staff, but burned out quickly.  

“The reality is we work in a very demanding, stressful career field, and see a lot of turnover, resulting in staffing shortages collectively as an industry,” Ortega-Wiebe said. 

The best thing Santa Barbara County residents can do to help is plan ahead, schedule a regular vet appointment, and learn about the available vet resources and services in order to alleviate services’ stress. Santa Barbara County Animal Services is creating a resources page for its website—translatable to Spanish—to raise awareness of nonprofit medical care, list food bank options for pet food, create vaccine and spay-neuter appointments, and offer preventative care education, Ortega-Wiebe said.

“We’ve been resilient for so many years with everything, but it feels lately with just the amount of stuff that’s been hitting us that our resiliency is just drained,” Ortega-Wiebe said.

Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor can be reached at  

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