This time last year, Stand For Animals, a low-cost veterinary clinic in North Carolina, had 10 veterinarians.
“We currently have four,” Cary Bernstein, founder and executive director of the clinic, told McClatchy News. “So the numbers kind of speak for themselves.”
Animal advocates across the country say they are worried about a shortage of veterinarians, especially as many COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and clinics start to reopen for in-person services.
On average, veterinary practices had two more clients per day in 2020 than 2019, and one more client per day in 2021 than 2020, according to a spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association. Visits are up 2.4% this month compared to April 2021.
The average number of veterinary appointment bookings grew by 4.5% from 2019 to 2020, according to a report from the American Veterinary Medical Association. They had increased 6.5% from January to June of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020.
Some of this was due to pent-up demand from when clinics were closed or offering limited services during the pandemic, the report says.
Demand for veterinary care increased “well beyond expectations” during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, according to Mars Veterinary Health, an international network of 2,500 veterinary clinics. But experts say the country was already experiencing a veterinary shortage in 2018.
If current trends continue, there could be a shortage of 15,000 veterinarians needed to meet the expected animal healthcare burden by 2030, according to Mars Veterinary Health.
“If you ask me what keeps me up at night, it’s this,” Julie Castle, CEO of Best Friends Animal Society, a national nonprofit providing adoption, spay / neuter and educational programs, told McClatchy News. “There aren’t enough veterinarians in this country to service the animals that are part of families.”
According to Mars Veterinary Health, experts predict spending on pet healthcare will increase by 33% over the next 10 years.
“Meanwhile, more and more veterinary professionals are leaving the field due to anxiety, stress and compassion fatigue,” Pam Runquist, executive director of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, wrote in an email.
Some areas are “veterinarian deserts” where only one or two vets service an entire population of pets, Castle said.
The American Veterinary Medical Association said in a statement that some clinics are doing well – while at others, veterinarians report feeling overworked and some practices have had to change the way they operate altogether.
“Like many industries, veterinary medicine is currently in a tight labor market,” the statement says. While most pet owners report being able to see a veterinarian within a week (emergencies, of course, are handled as just that), we know that at some clinics there are still long delays for an appointment, or pet owners who have had to wait for unusually long times in waiting rooms. ”
The Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association is working to help address the veterinarian shortage by providing resources for vets to care for their mental health, giving student loan assistance for veterinary medical students, promoting veterinary telemedicine as a potential alternative to in-person visits, and advocating for more diversity and inclusion in the profession, Runquist wrote.
Bernstein said her organization is doing everything it can to recruit vets.
“We have engaged with a headhunter, which is something we thought we’d never do in the past,” she said. “We’ve started to use social media as a way to try to recruit veterinarians.”
In the meantime, Stand For Animals has had to close one of its practice locations because of the staffing shortage, she said.
“Also, we’re not accepting any new clients right now which is something that we never thought we would do because we’re a low-cost provider and we’re one of the only options in the community,” she said. “It was a really hard decision to make – that we really had to focus on the people that we are currently trying to help.”
Castle said the issue is a complex one that affects not only families and their pets, but the entire shelter system.
The veterinarian shortage can delay the adoption process or halt it altogether if animals aren’t able to get the care they need before going home to a family.
“Where I’m seeing our ecosystem disrupted the most is shelters that once didn’t have an issue sourcing veterinary talent,” Castle said. “They just can’t find them, so the animals are really the ones that are getting the short end of that stick.”