National Vet Shortage Crisis
The bond between humans and their companion animals has always run incredibly deep. Over the past few years, especially during the pandemic, this bond grew even stronger as millions of families across the country brought new companion animals into their homes. However, this surge in companion animal adoptions has exposed a national concern — a significant shortage of veterinarians here in the U.S.
Why Are We Experiencing a Vet Shortage?
The unprecedented spike in companion animal adoptions, coupled with a wave of early retirements among seasoned veterinarians, on top of stifling student debt, has created a scenario where there simply aren't enough vets to meet the increasing demand for their services.
So, why exactly is there a shortage?
Pandemic Adoptions: At the heart of the issue is the remarkable increase in companion animal adoptions. As people sought companionship during lockdowns, approximately 31 million households in the U.S. adopted a dog or cat shortly after March 2020.
Increased Pet Healthcare: Over the past few decades, there's been a noticeable trend where companion animal guardians are investing more in their companion animals’ health and wellbeing. This includes more frequent visits to the vet and also seeking specialist care.
Veterinarian Retirement: Many vets, especially those approaching retirement age, opted for early retirement during the pandemic — a combination of health concerns and challenges associated with demanding clients.
Higher Education: Higher education is essential to train veterinarians, but it also contributes to the shortage. Many people want to become vets, but they're often held back by the tough courses, long years of study, and high college fees. Even if someone wants to help animals and join the field, the cost and time it takes to get a veterinary degree can be too much. Plus, most vet schools can only take a limited number of students each year. This means that even though we have high standards for our vets, we also need to look at how colleges might be making it hard for more people to join this important job.
Also, being a veterinarian is an incredibly intense job with a massive emotional burden.
The Toll on Current Veterinarians
For those still practicing, the strain is palpable. Longer working hours, an increasing number of patients, and the emotional toll of their profession, especially when dealing with critical cases, has led to heightened stress, compassion fatigue, and even burnout.
Moreover, a distressing 2018 study pointed out that veterinarians are 3.5 times more prone to suicide than the general population. Organizations like Not One More Vet have emerged to offer support, but the overarching challenges remain.
By 2030, research predicts that the country will require an additional 41,000 vets. However, a shortage of about 15,000 veterinarians is anticipated.
How the Vet Shortage Crisis Impacts Companion Animals
The vet shortage has clear impacts on companion animals. Emergency clinics scaling back their operational hours means distressed animals might not receive timely care.
When Michelle Stokes noticed a necrotic wound on her cat, Jellyfish, she reached out to over 50 vets before finding one that could get her an appointment. She had just recently moved to the area and had not yet gotten Jellyfish established with a regular vet. Jellyfish continued to get sicker and sicker. After a week of desperate calls to every vet listed in the area, they finally managed to get Jellyfish in for surgery. Thankfully, she has made a full recovery.
Stories like these are all too common, leaving companion animals to suffer and veterinarians struggling to keep up with a heavy workload.
How the Vet Shortage Crisis Contributes to the Stray Overpopulation Crisis
The vet shortage crisis has a major impact on spay and neuter operations, which further worsens the overpopulation issue of stray dogs and cats.
The Executive Director of McKamey Animal Center in Tennessee, Inga Fricke, explains, "Experts estimate that we may have put spay or neuter back maybe by 10 or 20 years, we are probably 3 million surgeries under where we should be if the pandemic had never happened.”
With veterinarians already overwhelmed with companion animal patients, stray animals are often overlooked due to a dire lack of resources.
The way forward is multifaceted:
Expansion of Veterinary Schools: Simply put, more schools and bigger classrooms mean more graduating vets. Plans like Clemson University's initiative to open South Carolina's first veterinary school is a step in the right direction.
Incentives for Veterinarians: With the average vet graduate's debt hovering around $200,000, loan repayment programs could attract more individuals to the profession, especially in underserved areas.
Leveraging Veterinary Techs: By expanding the roles and responsibilities of vet techs, veterinarians can focus more on specialized care, optimizing their time and expertise.
What Can You Do?
As a companion animal guardian, being proactive is key. It’s very helpful to find a primary care veterinarian and foster a relationship early on. Routine check-ups can identify potential health concerns, helping your companion animal remain healthy and happy.
Also, addressing the stray overpopulation crisis is critical in order to alleviate a massive area of animal suffering. That’s why 600 Million Dogs is working on a humane, permanent solution. Our nonprofit science-centered mission is to significantly reduce animal suffering on a global scale by developing a safe, edible, one-dose, permanent-lasting birth control Cookie for stray dogs and cats! Providing an alternative to conventional spay or neuter surgery would also reduce the burden on veterinarians, especially in countries outside the U.S.
Be kind to your veterinarian!
The national veterinarian shortage is a multifaceted problem that requires attention, resources, and time to help address it. As we navigate this challenging situation, understanding the issues and supporting our local vets will be instrumental in ensuring the well-being of our beloved pets.
Be extra kind to your veterinarians, especially those providing low-cost spay and neuter and other health services to shelters and rescue groups! As you may know, this field is called "shelter medicine," and the more vets who get involved, the better!
Remember that vets are juggling an extremely heavy workload and face a great deal of pressure. A simple thank-you, a word of encouragement, or even a bit of patience can make a world of difference. Let's help our veterinarians feel supported and valued; after all, they play an indispensable role in keeping our beloved companion animals healthy and happy.