By Marcia Mayeda
Director, Animal Care & Control for Los Angeles County
People often ask me why I didn’t pursue a career in veterinary medicine because I love animals so much. I had indeed considered it and was an avid reader of James Herriot’s books about being a veterinarian in 1930’s and 40’s Yorkshire, England. I also worked for a veterinarian when I was in high school and enjoyed my job tremendously.
However, I also recognized that I would face some challenges as a veterinarian that I would not be able to reconcile. The first was that pet owners were sometimes unable to pay for service. I knew I could never turn away an animal in need, so I would either go bankrupt giving away my services and medicine or be fired by the practice owner. The other challenge was that I had little interest in science and knew the rigorous education program would be very unappealing! Fortunately, I found my calling in animal welfare and do a job I love.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that I chose not to pursue veterinary medicine because the past several years has seen a shift in this field, making access to care more difficult and frustrating both veterinarians and pet owners. Many people have reached out to me about how to find veterinary care, describe how long it takes to get an appointment, and comment on the long lines they see outside of veterinary hospitals. I have heard stories of pets in medical crisis being driven from hospital to hospital by their frantic owners, desperate to get medical care for their animal, only to be turned away because staffing or resources weren’t available to help them.
So, what is going on?
The veterinary medical profession has been experiencing several unique challenges for the past several years. First, there is a shortage of veterinarians available to provide medical care. There are only 32 accredited colleges of veterinary medicine in the U.S., compared to 155 accredited MD-granting institutions, and 37 accredited DO-granting institutions. There just aren’t enough schools to graduate enough veterinarians to practice. Veterinary hospitals are having difficulty finding veterinarians to place on staff, which means they don’t have the personnel to provide services to your pet.
More veterinarians and registered veterinary technicians are also leaving the field faster than new ones can replace them. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the turnover rate of veterinarians is 23%, twice that of physicians, and the turnover of veterinary technicians is 26% compared to 19% of registered nurses. The added stress of providing services during the pandemic placed even more demands on an already difficult and often emotionally draining profession. This leads to a growing net loss of trained professionals to provide veterinary medical care.
The COVID-19 pandemic had impacts on how veterinarians can provide care. Physical distancing and COVID-19 safety precautions created procedural difficulties that reduced the number of patients that could be seen each day. Shortages of medical supplies that were diverted for human medicine made it necessary to postpone elective surgeries or wellness visits, and now pet owners are trying to make up for the lost time by getting those services.
There is also a greater demand for veterinary services. Many people added new pets to their families during the pandemic, creating even further need for veterinary services. Owners able to work remotely spend more time with their pets, noticing subtle physical changes they would not have otherwise noticed had they been working outside the home all day. These observations led to more requests for veterinary examinations. A lot of pet owners had more disposable income during the pandemic and put that money back into their animals, obtaining more services for their pets and further increasing the calls for veterinary care.
Most people outside the veterinary medical profession are unaware of the mental and emotional challenges faced by these professionals. Veterinarians and registered veterinary technicians choose their profession to save lives but may be forced to euthanize treatable animals because the owners are unable or unwilling to pay the cost of treatment. (For more on pet health care costs, read my May 2021 blog post here: https://animalcare.lacounty.gov/pet-health-care-costs/.)
Many veterinarians are asked to provide care or medicine for free, and then are harassed or cyber-bullied if they don’t. A 2014 survey by the AVMA found that 20% of veterinarians were cyber-bullied, had negative online reviews, or knew colleagues who did. That year, Dr. Shirley Koshi, a Bronx veterinarian, died by suicide after being harassed over a stray cat by a person who went so far as to lead demonstrations outside her clinic, write online attacks, and file a lawsuit against her, severely damaging her business. That same year, internationally renown veterinarian, animal behaviorist, and author Dr. Sophia Yin also tragically died by suicide. Following Dr. Yin’s death, the organization Not One More Vet was formed to address the rate of veterinarian suicide and provide resources to veterinarians struggling or considering suicide.
A highly demanding workload, demanding and difficult clients, financial pressures of running a profitable business, deep emotional and mental stress, and a shortage of trained professionals have all led us to where we are today. What can a pet owner do? Take advantage of annual visits which can be scheduled in advance; remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Plan ahead for your medication refills; Most refills can be requested by email and can be done weeks in advance. Be patient with scheduling delays. Have a plan for emergency care in advance and discuss your plan with your veterinarian. Pet-proof your home and keep an eye on your pets, especially puppies and kittens. A lot of emergencies are preventable. And above all, be kind to your veterinary medical professionals. They are equally as devoted to your animals as you are and are doing the best they can during these difficult times.