ORLANDO, Fla. – Pet owners face a potentially big problem as the veterinary field deals with a growing shortage of veterinarians.
Researchers at Mars Vet Health claim a boom in pet adoptions, especially during the COVID pandemic, and the retirement of approximately 2,000 veterinarians each year have combined to create that shortage.
They now estimate nearly 41,000 additional veterinarians will be needed by 2030 to meet the growing demand.
Currently, some pet owners said they were already seeing delays in getting appointments with some practices booked weeks and months in advance.
News 6 investigated possible solutions.
Kelli Willis usually gets to work before the sun rises.
“Hey, we got Noodle, here? I’ve got a room ready for us,” she said to a client at Newberry Animal Hospital in Gainesville.
Willis has taken on some of the work traditionally performed by veterinarians as a certified veterinary technician.
“The easiest way to explain this to people is I’m basically a registered nurse, but for animals,” she said. “I do so much more than that. I’m a nutritionist, I’m a behaviorist, I’m a phlebotomist, I’m an X-ray technician, I’m an anesthetist.”
Some point to Willis’ job — a mid-level practitioner — as a possible solution to help ease the veterinarian shortage.
“I do think that maybe I am a solution, but I think that veterinary technicians, in general, and better utilization of them in the hospital is the solution to helping veterinarians with the staffing shortage,” she said.
Willis graduated from veterinary technician school, and she passed a licensing exam to earn her medical license. She has to renew that license every two years.
“I think that it’s important for people to understand what this job is. It’s a really cool job,” she said. “You know, I get a lot of the patient interaction. I’m the one that sees the patient first. I’m the one that greets them. I get the feel for them. You know, if I walk into a room, and I see a dog that’s nervous under the table, I’m the first person to interact with them. That’s so important to establish a good baseline and a good foundation for both the doctor and the client.”
News 6 investigated more solutions at the largest gathering of veterinarians in the country – the annual VMX conference hosted by the North American Veterinary Community.
CEO Gene O’Neil said 27,000 veterinarians attended this year’s event at the Orange County Convention Center.
“Of course, everyone’s worried when they can’t find staff to fill their hospitals and clinics,” he said. “Demand is up. Demand is definitely up.”
“The number of pets has increased so very much,” said Dr. Dana Varble, NAVC’s chief veterinary officer. “It’s not so much that we’re an unprepared industry. It’s that the number of pets and the pet owning population and the way we treat our pets has changed so much over the last 10 to 20 years.”
Expanding vet med school admission
“There are more attorneys in the District of Columbia than there are veterinarians in the entire United States,” NAVC President Dr. Bob Lester said. “The demand for those veterinarians has never been larger.”
Lester said the expected shortage is not the result of a lack of interest.
“The good news is there are record numbers of applicants to veterinary schools,” he said. “The challenge is finding enough seats for them.”
News 6 examined the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida.
In 2022, that college announced it opened 30 more spots for students to apply for.
Out of 1,922 applications, the school accepted only 150 students.
Researchers estimated 26,000 veterinary students will graduate by 2030 nationally, which still leaves a void of about 15,000 veterinarians.
Dr. Nicole Bruno, of Houston, said part of the solution is getting children interested in becoming a veterinarian at an early age.
“When I decided I wanted to be a vet, I did not have the opportunities to have exposure to the profession,” she said. “I also didn’t see myself in the profession.”
Bruno said nearly 94% of veterinarians are white, and as a Black woman, she felt is was important for the next generation to see themselves in her job.
For the first time, she organized a session at the VMX convention where middle school students explored what it was like being a veterinarian.
“Once I became a vet, I always said I was going to pay it forward,” she said. “Doing programs like this really is my passion to kind of help students see themselves in the profession and know what they need to do next steps to become veterinarians.”
In one room, students were introduced to microscopes, lab coats and listening to the heart beats of real puppies.
In another room, their parents listened to experts explain what their students needed to focus on in school to qualify for veterinary school.
“It’s very competitive to get to vet school, and you need to know that you want to be a vet and all the opportunities that are there,” she said. “The sooner that you can get exposure as a child, as soon as you know what the steps are, the better we can keep them on the pipeline, because we need our veterinarians. We need us.”
“Since COVID, the pet population has just gone crazy,” Dr. Cheryl Good said.
Good runs a practice in Dearborn, Michigan, and she said virtual visits with pet owners are helping her and others meet the rising demand.
“We can see our patients sooner, you know? They don’t have to wait the three or four weeks to come into the office,” she said.
She said her virtual visits have grown from one or two per month to five or six per day.
“Telemedicine is a game changer in that way because you can see them in their own environment,” she said.
Virtual or in-person, Willis said she stands by ready to help.
“I think that that is ultimately why we’re here,” she said. “We’re here to take care of patients, and we’re here to help clients take care of their animals in the best way possible.”
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