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Going 360: Multiple perspectives on nationwide veterinarian shortage

Veterinarian: 'A lot of us feel like we just don’t get a break'
veterinarian shortage 360
Posted at 5:00 AM, Jul 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-28 10:19:28-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The United States is facing its worst veterinarian shortage. According to industry experts, more and more vets are leaving due to mental health, work-life balance, injuries and higher-paying jobs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only made the situation worse. Thousands of people adopted pets as they had more time working from home. This added to the demand for care while the ones providing that care are fewer and further between.

KSHB 41 is taking this story 360, talking to:

  • A concerned pet owner
  • A local shelter struggling to keep up
  • A working vet worried about burnout
  • The humane society offering low-cost medical care
  • A professor teaching the next generation of veterinarians

A concerned pet owner

Pet owners like Victoria Sinden have fewer options these days for medical care. She recently felt helpless after her 11-month-old dog, Coco, ran over a fence and injured her leg.

The thought of waiting six hours at her regular vet clinic was difficult to fathom as her pup was in intense pain. The clinic had cut back hours and closed on multiple days due to a staffing shortage.

“We chose the vet that we did because they have later hours, and they’ve since had to trim their hours,” Sinden said.

Sinden ended up traveling 30 minutes out to Johnson County to find Coco care that day.

“In order to accommodate them, you have to go a little bit further and widen your search. You can no longer just rely on neighborhood vet services,” Sinden said.

A local shelter

At KC Pet Project, the total intake of dogs and cats is the highest it has ever been during the shelter’s ten-year history. Strays, lost pets and owner-surrenders are a growing problem.

“This year, we are well on track to take in over 15,000 animals — that requires additional resources,” Tori Fugate, chief communications officer, said.

Fugate says only four vets on staff are full-time, and a fifth opening has not been filled for a year. With so many job openings around the country, hospitals and shelters are all competing for the same pool of candidates.

But more animals mean more demand for care. In June alone, the vet team performed nearly a thousand surgeries.

“Our veterinarians see everything here, so we almost act like an ER trauma center a lot of the days,” Fugate said. “There’s more animals coming in. That means more pressure on them to do these services and things like that.”

And not only are animals coming in at record highs, but they are also being adopted at record speed. Across the nation, this means a higher burden on corporate and private sectors.

A working vet 

For veterinarian Dr. Matthew Silvius, there is a method to the madness inside Eagle Animal Hospital in Riverside. But when you scale back the layers, he says many would see just how tired his staff is.

“A lot of us feel like we just don’t get a break,” Silvius said. “We signed up to help pets, and we want to be able to do that, but it becomes a strain on you mentally, that’s for sure.”

COVID-19 quarantines and work-from-home orders gave millions of Americans the push to adopt a pet. But it was around the same time veterinarians around the country quit due to mental health, work-life balance and higher-paying jobs.

That gap has not closed since.

“We’ll have owners get upset when they can’t get an appointment or can’t come see us, and it’s hard for us emotionally as well because we want to be there to help people,” Silvius said. “We all went into this industry because we care about pets, and so we don’t want to let people down.”

Day-to-day operations at his office look like employees working overtime and being stretched thin. At this location alone, the hospital takes in almost 130 pets a day.

“Whoever your vet is, they care, they care about you, they are doing the best they can with what they have to work with,” Silvius said.

The humane society

For a population of our community, they do not have the luxury of choice. Dr. Amanda Isele at the Humane Society of Greater Kansas City says when the vet shortage shook the industry, it was their clientele that was hit the hardest.

“We know that we’re serving that underserved community and that without us, there’s a lot of pets that would go without care,” Isele said. “You know, they don’t have that extra income to help their pets because they might not even have that income for themselves. And so they are really here trying to do what they can.”

Their Affordable Care Clinic offers procedures at a much lower cost than other area hospitals, but the Affordable Care Clinic is currently operating at 70 percent capacity.

The problem is demand for veterinary care has grown by 50 percent.

“We didn’t have 50 percent more staff to deal with it, so that’s the tough part,” Isele said. “It’s really hard to have to say no to some people.”

With two full-time veterinarians tending to 3,000 animals a year, they are quite literally dog-tired.

“Our phones are always ringing. Our email is always full. We’re constantly trying to squeeze people in wherever we can because we know that they need us,” Isele said.

A professor at MU vet school

In hopes of finding a solution to the industry labor shortage, KSHB 41 headed to Columbia, Missouri, and spoke with a professor at the MU College of Veterinary Medicine.

“There has always been a very stiff competition to get into veterinary school,” Dr. Leah Cohn, professor and Interim Associate Dean of Academic and Student Affairs, said. “We’ve had a growing applicant pool over the last several years. Last year we had about 1,800 applicants for the 120-125 positions we had open.”

Cohn says the college is at full capacity for admission, and with only 33 accredited vet schools in the United States, this is the case at most of them.

So where is the drop-off of veterinarians happening? Cohn believes along with injuries and compassion fatigue, it is happening because of money. The cost of attending veterinary school ranges between $170,000 and $300,000 depending on the program, on top of having to attain an undergraduate degree.

“Educational debt is a big barrier to participation,” Cohn said. “It’s also potentially one of the barriers to reaching the communities that could add to our diversity in populations that have not traditionally been in veterinary medicine. It’s very important to us to produce a population of veterinarians that look like the population of people that need veterinary care. So we want to have more diversity to veterinarians. And so we’re trying to reach groups that have been underrepresented.”

Cohn also suggests increasing the pool of people pursuing veterinary technical degrees, similar to nurse practitioners in human medicine. She believes it could help lighten the workload of vets and increase manpower in the industry.

“A much shorter time than the eight years it takes to become a veterinarian is one way that we can be helpful,” Cohn said.

As part of KSHB 41 News’ commitment to providing context and depth in our reporting, we’ve excited to share our latest project, which we’re calling 360. This project takes stories and topics that our communities are talking about and explores different perspectives on the issue. You can be a part of the process by e-mailing your ideas and thoughts to us at 360@kshb.com.