The next time your pet has a medical emergency, you might wonder if your efforts to get it to a 24-hour vet reaches a dead end – or requires some unexpected extra work.
The number of veterinarians is at an all-time low – and if it doesn’t shows signs of recovery in the next few years, you might end up with a pet that can’t afford to get sick.
“It is estimated we have a shortage of 15,000 veterinarians in the United States, with several counties in South Carolina being listed as ‘high need,’” said Dr. Jane Vermeulen, medical director at South Carolina Veterinary Specialists & Emergency Care in Columbia.
Her practice expanded during COVID to include 24-hour urgent care, but Dr. Vermeulen said she isn’t sure how long it can continue without adding personnel.
“We haven’t yet had to turn away pet owners requiring care for their pets,” she said. “But there have been occasions when the wait time has been longer as we have many pets in the hospital.”
That wait is likely to get longer at veterinary offices across the United States.
Based on research by Mars Veterinary Health, a network of 2,500 clinics and hospitals in 21 countries, nearly 41,000 additional veterinarians will be needed by 2030 to meet the growing demand. Two main reasons cited for the current shortage are a boom in pet adoptions, especially during COVID; and the retirement of about 2,000 veterinarians each year.
The issue was already building before the COVID pandemic. A 2018 national study by MARS reported that in order to meet demand and relieve many vets from overwork, more than 6,200 additional full-time-equivalent veterinarians were needed. Since then, the issue has increased to what is now approaching crisis levels.
For example, Mars estimates that the U.S. pet population in 2030 will include nearly 102 million dogs and more than 82 million cats. If the decreasing trend of veterinarians continues, it is possible that 75 million pets would not be able to receive the care they need.
This scenario could easily impact many areas of American life, such as animal welfare, with greater rates of pet mortality; higher chance of zoonosis, infectious diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans; more veterinary burnout and compassion fatigue, which Dr. Vermeulen said are “real issues in veterinary medicine;” general public health, since many people depend on pets for their well-being.
“To meet the projected need for pet health care in 2030, an estimated total of 40,959 veterinarians will need to enter companion animal practice over the next 10 years,” said James Lloyd, doctor of veterinary medicine with Animal Health Economics and former dean of the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “(That means) 22,909 to accommodate growth in the market, plus 18,050 to cover the expected retirements.”
Dr. Vermeulen added that while her practice has been relatively fortunate so far in meeting all client needs, she is wondering if it will eventually be forced to go the way of other veterinary hospitals.
“During the pandemic, many emergency clinics had to ‘close or pause’ for several hours due to short staffing,” she said. “Many general practices were no longer accepting new patients, so this was a challenge for us as the pet owners needed care for their pets and could only go to emergency clinics.”
But Dr. Lloyd said there is still time to avoid a crisis, citing a number of solutions:
• Expand DVM student enrollments to increase the number of college graduates;
• Provide U.S. pet owners with adequate companion animal services.
• Offer student debt relief to associates;
• Build a bigger talent pipeline and strengthen career pathways.
In the case of South Carolina, efforts are underway to establish the state’s first veterinary school at Clemson University by 2026.
Even if all this happens, Drs. Lloyd and Vermeulen said it might not be enough to completely solve the vet shortage: But at least it will be on the road to recovery.
“We can help support the veterinary profession by opening up more seats in veterinary colleges and possibly seeking or supporting veterinarians who are interested in working in rural or less-populous areas,” Dr. Vermeulen said, adding that a touch of patience among clients will also go a long way. “I always ask pet owners to be kind to all veterinary team members, as they truly love pets and want them to get the best care possible when they need it.”
By L. C. Leach III