Veterinarian workforce can’t keep up with demand, face same challenges as regular doctors

By Jackie Sedley

Many veterinary clinics had to significantly reduce their hours during the pandemic, causing a backlog of appointments that’s putting extra stress on an already burnt-out, under-staffed veterinarian workforce.

“I can tell you from experience and friends of mine, [clinics] are so short-staffed they are turning emergencies away because they don’t have the help to respond,” says Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Los Angeles.

Historically, veterinarians and their support staff have incredibly high turnover rates

One in six veterinarians have contemplated suicide in 2020, says a report by the American Medical Veterinary Association. Bernstein says vets often feel unappreciated for their work, on top of the stress of having to pay off expensive student loans.

“You hear this all the time: ‘If you really loved animals, you would give a break to this group … you would do 100 neuters in one day and not charge. If you really loved animals, then you wouldn’t be charging for this, you would be doing it because you wanted to.’ And it hurts,” Bernstein says.

The solution appears simple at first: Get more people into veterinary school. But Bernstein says changes need to be made from the bottom-up, to inspire retention and keep veterinarians supported in the workplace.

“They have all the issues that regular doctors and nurses have, plus the overlay of patients that can’t talk to them, people who treat their pets like property and don’t necessarily do follow-ups, owners who don’t necessarily listen to their instructions, owners who will have an animal put down. We call it ‘economic euthanasia’ because the bill is too high and they don’t pay it. … You get all of this stuff on top of everything else that’s going wrong,” Bernstein says.