For more than three decades, Kirsten Sauter has been there for Vineyard pet owners. Since she opened her veterinary practice in Vineyard Haven in 1994, she’s helped countless cats, dogs, birds and even horses.

But last week, Dr. Sauter told her clients that she plans to retire and close her practice in April. The announcement elicited congratulations on some well-earned rest, but also worry as her departure means it will be even harder Islanders to find a vet on the Vineyard. It will also cut down on the number of vets in the Island-wide emergency on-call system, likely resulting in coverage gaps.

A dwindling number of veterinarians, plus an influx of residents and pets during the pandemic, has forced many pet owners to go off-Island for both appointments and emergencies as most professionals, including Dr. Sauter, have stopped taking new clients.

In messages to her existing customers, Dr. Sauter suggested people look to Falmouth for care.

“There’s been a lot more pet ownership since COVID and it seems like a lot of people moved here,” Dr. Sauter said.

The Island’s other veterinarians, in an unusual joint statement, wished Dr. Sauter a happy retirement and asked the public to make allowances for the Island’s dedicated pet doctors, who work long hours and log extra on-call shifts, sometimes being on duty as much as 24 hours at a time.

“Please do not blame the local doctors or their staff,” veterinarians Dr. Michelle Jasny, Dr. Steven Atwood, Dr. Charles Rogers, Dr. David Tuminaro, Dr. Constance Breese and Dr. Sauter wrote. “Most of the veterinarians here have put in twenty, thirty, forty years plus of service including round-the-clock on call shifts, covering every night, every weekend, every holiday.”

A nationwide veterinarian shortage, the Island’s sky high housing costs and the need to work these long on-call shifts have all made it hard to attract new veterinarians to the Vineyard. Dr. Sauter tried to sell her practice for eight years but was unable to find a buyer.

Her absence will also whittle down the number of vets remaining on the Island who care for larger animals. Dr. Sauter is currently one of three Vineyard veterinarians who see horses, she said. It’s likely that there will no longer be any emergency coverage for large animals after My Pet’s Vet closes in April, the veterinarians said. A small group of the remaining veterinarians are hoping to continue urgent care for small animals as close to 24/7 as they can.

My Pet's Vet, one of the Island's handful of vet practices, is set to close in April. — Ray Ewing

Vista Vets, a Falmouth veterinary clinic that opened in 2021, still has room for patients and its proximity to the Island has the Vineyard vets suggesting pet owners cross Vineyard Sound for care.

“A lot of vets on the Vineyard were already maxed out,” said Cory Griffin, the practice manager at Vista Vets. “Pretty much from the get-go we were taking a decent amount of Vineyard clients.”

Right now, she estimated that about a quarter of the clinic’s patients lived on the Island. The number is so large that the company is starting a new service where medications can be sent to established customers on the Island via the Patriot boat.

But even Vista, one of the few vets taking new patients, doesn’t handle 24/7 emergencies, meaning some pets may have to go even further afield, raising the cost of owning a pet even higher for Islanders.

If pet owners have an emergency, the Island’s vets urge them to call their regular veterinarian. If they are unavailable, owners should try on-call clinics, telemedicine or mainland emergency hospitals in Bourne and South Weymouth.

In 2021, the Island vets started using a telemedicine service called VetTriage in an attempt to lighten the load. About two-thirds of after hours or weekends calls have been able to be handled through the virtual system, but it doesn’t change the fact that there are too many people and pets for the number of local veterinarians.

That’s something that likely isn’t going to balance out any time soon.

“We care deeply about the Island animals and their owners but there is only so much each of us can do,” the Island vets said in their statement. “More of us will likely be retiring in the not-too-distant future. We hope new veterinarians will come here eventually, especially those who are willing to provide emergency care, but we have not succeeded in making that happen despite our best efforts.”