After losing one of their own veterinarians to suicide, Robert Fisher, the hospital director at Garden Oak Veterinary Clinic had to turn to several relief veterinarians – veterinarians from outside clinics – to step in and provide coverage.
“There’s a lot of rewards that come with this industry, but at the same time, we have to go through a lot. Can you imagine putting down an animal daily?” Fisher said. “Those are the things we have to go through on top of everything else. What do you think that does to a person?”
“You have to realize that veterinarians and vet technicians are healthcare providers, which means they are inherently caring people, they are invested in the well-being of the animals they are treating,” Fisher said. “These are caring people by nature and when they see animals suffer in silence, they suffer in silence too – we have to find ways to support them too.”
The widespread veterinary and veterinary technician shortage is a problem that has spanned years. This shortage is coming to a forefront as the rise in animal populations by 2030 will cause a need for 41,000 additional veterinarians and 133,000 veterinary technicians, according to the American Animal Hospital Association, based in Lakewood, Colorado.
Even though some veterinary schools are reaching record numbers of enrollment – as at Texas A&M University – schools need to continue to expand those enrollments to curb the shortage and keep up with the rise in demand, those in the profession say.
There are many factors that go into why this shortage is occurring — financial obstacles, work life balance, mental health related-struggles and a need for better clinic culture — veterinarians and animal care officials said.
Due to the pressures professionals face in this field, death by suicide is at a high rate for animal health care providers– with female veterinarians four times as likely to die by suicide than their male counterparts, according to the animal hospital association. Clearly, not all the pressures result in someone taking their own life, but what more often happens is that many veterinarians decide they just don’t want to be vets anymore.
What has exacerbated this issue recently is the growth in the volume of the pet populations during the height of the pandemic. People were adopting animals left and right, which led to a higher-than-average amount of animals needing healthcare, John Fischer, Animal Services Manager for the City of Pearland said.
“We absolutely flooded the market during the pandemic, anyone who wanted a pet got one, and now those pets need additional veterinary care,” Fischer said. “And now we’re realizing that there aren’t enough veterinarians to keep up with the growth of the industry.
Fischer said that clinics who are still functioning on limited capacity, make it difficult for an animal to be seen same day because of the reduced number of appointments on the schedule.
Many residual pet-owners are left looking for additional appointments and availability that some facilities don’t have the staff to provide, said Fischer.
“We set thousands of animals into the homes that require veterinary care, and we didn’t add additional veterinarians and we needed to,” Fischer said. “Now, that is placing additional burdens on existing veterinarians.”
Not only is there a need for additional veterinarians able to provide this health care to the growing number of pets, the type of care they have to provide now has shifted, said Dr. Natalie Lang, Medical Director and Veterinarian at VEG Houston.
According to Lang, she noticed when COVID-19 was at its worst pet owners were hesitant to bring their animals in for routine care even with curbside options available – because they weren’t sure if it was worth the risk to themselves.
Now, veterinarians are having to treat animals who have not had this preventative care for several years – which has created an uptick in more extensive treatment of health issues during wellness check-ups, Lang said.
And pet owners, Lang said, are not always the easiest clients to handle in situations that involve their pets’ health.
This was another hurdle COVID-19 threw into the mix for veterinarians like Lang who treated animals using alternative methods like curb-side care.
“Curbside care is hard enough, it reduces efficiency and then you are trying to interact with people who are putting their pets’ lives in your hands and all you can do is talk to them through the phone,” Lang said. “They can’t see my friendly face or really gain my trust in speaking with me in-person and I am often asking them for a lot of money for the surgery.”
Lang said this contributed to many frustrated or anxious interactions that made her feel just as overwhelmed as the pet-owner.
Lang is a veterinarian who specializes in emergency care, handling critical cases on a daily basis. She said often pet owners don’t understand what veterinarians learn and employ to do what they do.
“I think the general society just never gets to see what we really do so there isn’t always an appreciation for all the skills that it takes for someone to take care of an animal,” Lang said. “I think one way to tackle clients’ frustrations is to increase this education and awareness of the process behind their pet’s care.”
All veterinarians make sacrifices both in and out of the workplace, but the job demands may be especially difficult in this now female-dominated profession for those with families waiting at home for them.
This adds yet another burden as hours for emergency veterinarians are often unpredictable, Lang said.
“I just sat there thinking what else could I do that’s not this,” Lang said. “Specifically in emergency, the culture we are surrounded by is just really tough and then on top of that with the shortage there are very few of us there. We’re seeing a lot more patients to make up for the lack of other veterinarians there.”
Without many other employment options to turn to that were financially feasible or as emotionally fulfilling, Lang decided to stay and transferred to VEG (Veterinary Emergency Group) Houston.
She was instantly drawn in by their open-concept clinic which allows people to stay with their animals throughout their health care procedures.
This idea of bringing the animal owner along, Lang said, tackled those difficult client interactions alleviating some of the pressure patient interactions had on her. This practice also helped facilitate the education and awareness that is often lacking between pet-owners and their pets’ health care providers.
“I haven’t even been there for a year, and it has completely reinvigorated my attitude and changed my whole professional life,” Lang said. “I feel like they just pulled me up and made me feel like I could stay at this company and have a very long, fulfilling career. It’s amazing to see how much clinic culture affects the work we do.”
Although Lang elected to stay in her chosen career, she said not many veterinarians or veterinary technicians choose to do the same.
The average rate of turnover for veterinarians in 2020 was 16 percent and for veterinary technicians it was 23.4 percent, according to the animal hospital association.
The higher rate among veterinary technicians also may be affected by the amount of money they earn for the type of work they do.
Typical tasks performed by a veterinary technicians include preparing animals and equipment for procedures, administering medications and vaccinations, providing emergency first aid, collecting specimens, performing labatory procedures, gathering medical history, assisting in research, performing initial examinations and cleaning up after an animal that was seen.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the average annual salary for a veterinarian technician varies per state. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, it takes two to four years to become an accredited veterinary technician. As of 2021, in Texas, the average annual salary for this position was $33,040.
Although, a veterinarian’s average annual salary is reported to be higher than a veterinary technician at $113,720, veterinary school can take up to nine years to complete, with additional years needed if the student wants to take additional specialized training, said the Illinois-based veterinary association.
“These young adults are leaving school with between $200,000 to $400,000 in debt,” Fisher said. “Imagine that stress on top of everything else, that’s why there has to be good mentorship of these younger veterinarians.”
Most veterinarians to-be who are entering into their studies know that becoming a veterinarian is not an instant money-making endeavor, Fisher said. He tries to curb some of the financial strain for students and early-career veterinarians by offering financial advice whenever they need it.
Fisher said one of the key components to solving the veterinary shortage is not just about hiring new vets and vet techs; it is also about encouraging and catering to the needs of those that are already in the field.
A lot of Fisher’s other work at Garden Oaks Veterinary Clinic involves finding ways of implementing other tools for veterinarians to use to provide good quality care and feel like they are supported by the hospital’s community.
One way Garden Oaks assists early career veterinarians – who came to them straight out of veterinary school – is through a program that they are a part of with other veterinary hospitals through Community Veterinary Partners called Catapult.
This program allows veterinarians to meet other young veterinarians and travel to other clinics. They can take courses catered to specific procedures or treatment, providing them with the educational opportunities and ability to connect with people in their position, Fisher said.
“One of our first-years is already teaching other people, I mean he’s going to be a rock star,” Fisher said. “You just have to provide the opportunities that are going to make people want to stay in this industry and we need people to stay.”
According to Dr. Lori Teller, interest in the profession has grown at Texas A&M’s Veterinary School as enrollment rates and classes sizes have increased over the last two to three years.
Though Teller, a clinical associate professor at A&M, said school enrollment rising is a national trend, the rate of enrollment in over the next 10 years is not high enough to meet the needs for practicing veterinarians, according to Mars Veterinary Health – a family of veterinary practices and labs across the United States.
If schools’ enrollments continue to progress at the same rate with no increase, the profession will not have 15,000 of the 41,0000 veterinarians needed by 2030, Mars Veterinary Health said.