(This is not a lame Toblerone sketch. It is a real graph generated from our numbers.)
Small animal practice has become highly seasonal. You can see from the graph that the seven months from August through February are pretty steady and then sometime in March we begin climbing, at first gradually and then sharply, reaching the peak around mid to late May. We are almost twice as busy then as in the slowest time of year.
Why is this? In a word, heartworm (and to a lesser extent ticks; I guess that's two words...). The start of prevention of heartworm disease has to happen in a fairly narrow window, pretty much exactly defining the mountain. This by itself only accounts for a portion of the traffic though. What has happened is that many dog owners would rather only come in once a year, so we've seen the annual physicals and vaccinations drift into this time-frame too. And then, when they're in for their physicals, we sometimes end up finding medical issues that need further attention, so more and more work gets piled into the peak months.
This makes staffing appropriately an enormous challenge. With a few exceptions the labour market for veterinarians and veterinary staff does not permit hiring people seasonally, so you end up staffing for a moderately busy scenario and then being short-staffed when it is really busy and over-staffed when it is quiet. A few tweaks can be made, such as discouraging vacation time during the peak season, but generally you just expect to be exhausted come the end of June, accompanied by the nagging feeling that you haven't given some of your patients the full time and attention they deserve because you were being pulled in too many directions at once (see: http://vetography.blogspot.ca/2017/06/supersonic-octopus.html).
Is there anything you the pet owner can do to help? I'm glad you asked! To begin with, cat owners should be aware that the mountain is mostly made up of dogs. Consequently, unless your cat really delights in the sights, sounds and smells of dozens of hyperactive and stressed out dogs, you should give some thought to booking his annual physical and vaccinations some other time of year. And then for dog owners I have one suggestion. If your dog's annual visit is during the spring and if she has a significant chronic medical condition you'd like to discuss, there are are some advantages to making a separate appointment for that during the fall or winter. The veterinarian will likely have a clearer head and more time for you. The spring visit can then be used as a quick recheck. Paying for two visits this way might seem extravagant, but I think in many cases this strategy will actually save money in the long run by resulting in more carefully thought out treatment strategies.
But if you have to come in May with your list of fifteen problems, don't worry. We still try our hardest and most of the time everything works out fine. Just don't ask about the bags under my eyes...
*Although sometimes we don't notice it until September because if our colleagues are on summer vacation in August the same amount of work gets dumped on fewer laps...