US Veterinarians Overwhelmed as More Pet Owners Seek Care

The pandemic has not only been challenging for medical workers, it has also overwhelmed veterinarians who report a rising demand for pet care as many Americans acquired furry friends while cooped up at home.

For a growing number of pet owners, it has been frustrating trying to get into a veterinary clinic.

“I used to have no trouble getting in to see my veterinarian before the pandemic,” said Mila Helmsford, a dog owner in Alexandria Virginia, as she walked Bailey, her golden retriever. “Now, when I call to make an appointment, I’m told it could be several days or longer before the vet can see my dog. And that concerns me, especially when Bailey isn’t feeling well.” 

Veterinarians say they haven’t been able to treat the same number of pets per day as they did prior to the pandemic due to social distancing and other pandemic restrictions, creating a backlog.

“People have more pets than ever before, and many of them got their animals during the pandemic,” said Jessica Vogelsang, chief medical officer for the American Animal Hospital Association, a nonprofit organization for companion animal veterinary hospitals. “So, there’s an increased demand for veterinary services.”

As pet owners face long waits, many veterinarians deal with burnout from stress, long working hours and a lack of work-life balance, said David Lee, a director at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Some of them are reducing their work hours or leaving the profession entirely because they’re so frustrated,” he said. 

“I strongly believe there is a shortage of veterinarians in the U.S.,” Rustin Moore, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the Ohio State University, told VOA. “I’ve heard many veterinarians say they are having a difficult time trying to hire the veterinarians they need for their practices.”

“The veterinarian shortage is acute and chronic,” said Mark Cushing, founder and CEO of the Animal Policy Group, an organization that focuses on animal care.

Others believe there is no actual scarcity, only a perception of one.  

“I think there is this perception of a shortage because pet owners can’t see their veterinarian as quickly as they would like to right now,” said Jose Arce, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, an organization representing more than 90,000 veterinarians in the U.S. Arce said his organization’s data doesn’t reflect a shortage.

Despite challenges within the profession, interest in becoming a vet has not waned, according to Moore at Ohio State. If anything, he said there are not enough veterinary training colleges to meet demand, noting that “applications have gone up significantly from people who are highly qualified.”

One of the newest programs is the University of Arizona’s College of Veterinary Medicine, which had its first class last year.

“We have a three, instead of the usual four-year program,” said Katie Bergingson, the director of admissions and student affairs. “This means we can get our graduates into the workforce faster, especially into communities where veterinarians are really needed.”

And many of the students say veterinary medicine is more than a vocation, it’s a passion.

“I love animals. They bring me so much joy,” said Deianira Smith, a 26-year-old veterinary student, who aims to teach people how to take better care of their animals.

Animal Policy Group’s Cushing believes veterinary practices need to be more efficient and ready for a new normal of high demand and high expectation.

“Millennials now own 60% of all pets and they’re demanding a higher level of services, including medical advice,” he said. “They can be more hands-on with their animals.” 

Arce, with the American Veterinary Medical Association, sees remote telehealth continuing to blossom at animal clinics, as well as better use of technicians to assist overworked vets.

Veterinary positions are anticipated to grow 16% by 2029, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For both veterinarians and their clients, it can’t come soon enough.

“I know the animal hospital where I take my dog is doing the best they can right now,” said dog owner Kayla Lewis of San Francisco. “But I hope I won’t have to worry about getting in to see my vet too much longer. My dog, Shadow, is like a member of my family.”

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