BULLHEAD CITY - At times, veterinarian Pam Clark is too busy with surgery and routine appointments to treat pets needing emergency care at her North Valley Animal Clinic.
Things often aren’t any better at the half-dozen other animal clinics serving this fast-growing area in northwestern Arizona. Frantic pet owners then are left to find emergency care elsewhere, and sometimes that’s 100 miles away in Las Vegas.
“We try to save a few slots every day for sick animals,” said Clark, the only veterinarian in her clinic. “It doesn’t always work.”
Clark said she has advertised continuously for help over the past eight years but has been able lure only two veterinarians who didn’t stick around long. Until another veterinarian joins her practice, she isn’t accepting new clients, and current clients have to wait two months for appointments.
“I have to set limits,” Clark said. “I’m not going to kill myself over it like I used to, working 24/7.”
Communities statewide are short of veterinarians, officials say, but the problem is most acute in rural areas.
“A veterinarian can go pick and choose wherever they want to work because there is such a shortage,” said Karter Neal, supervising veterinarian at the Humane Society in Tucson. “You could probably walk into Tucson as a vet and get a job within a day. We really need vets to focus on those rural areas.”
Neal chairs a task force created by the Arizona Veterinary Medical Association to find ways to attract more veterinarians to rural communities.
The state has 1,700 licensed veterinarians and needs about 300 more to meet demand, Neal said.
Many veterinarians in rural areas have stopped caring for horses to keep up with demand for cat and dog care, Neal said.
“There’s a serious risk of losing a horse,” she said. “It could die of its illness in the three to four hours to get to a vet.”
In Bullhead City, the unincorporated area of Mohave Valley to the south and across the Colorado River in Laughlin, Nev., the number of veterinarians hasn’t kept pace with the population, which has doubled since 1990 to more than 60,000.
Brenda Bentley, owner of grooming business called Pet Palace, said some pet owners have to go as far as Las Vegas for emergency help. Bentley herself had to travel 45 minutes to Kingman one evening when she needed a veterinarian to take care of an overheated puppy.
“I wasn’t able to get a vet here to answer a phone or deal with it, so I had to drive it up there _ in a very quick fashion because its brain was swelling out of its head,” Bentley said.
In rural areas, fewer veterinarians means more work for each, including night and weekend calls in communities without a round-the-clock emergency center.
“It would be really nice to have an emergency clinic closer,” said Sandra Lovering, a veterinary assistant at Foothills Animal Hospital in Yuma. “The one time a year when our vets go out of town we have to send people quite a ways.”
The nearest emergency clinics to Yuma are in Phoenix, Tucson or the San Diego area, Lovering said.
Neal said rural communities are less attractive to young veterinarians, who increasingly come from cities and often have big student loan balances.
“Veterinarians are graduating with huge debt loads, and the economics of surviving in a rural area is challenging for them,” Neal said.
Neal’s task force is looking into financial incentives to make moving to rural areas more enticing, including debt relief programs.
Opening a veterinary school in Arizona, which lacks one, also would help, Neal said. Most Arizona veterinary students go to schools in Colorado, Oregon and Washington, according to the Arizona Veterinary Medical Association.
All of those factors leave a community such as Bullhead City in sore need of veterinarians and leave pet owners such as Kim Miles worried about what will happen if an emergency strikes.
Miles said she’s afraid her horse will get sick and won’t be able to get into a trailer. The nearest veterinarian who treats horses is in Kingman and may not be able to make a house call, she said.
“The horse would probably have to be put down,” Miles said. “That’s just the reality of it.”
Bullhead City’s problems are about to get worse. Veterinarian John Opalka will close his practice when he retires in August. He gave up a two-year search for a buyer when no one showed interest.
“We’ve got people who aren’t as independent as they used to be,” he said. “When I graduated 40 years ago that was the dream, to work your butt off. You don’t see that now. It’s, ‘How much time can I get off?’”