Once upon a time, we could always count on nurses, firefighters, policemen, and doctors showing up for work, no matter what. That’s because they are life-savers, and life-savers are supposed to be there for us 24/7. Alas, though, times have changed. The Pandemic has created shortages among the ranks of these brave and vitally important public servants, and those who remain on the job are overworked. The result is longer wait times in emergency rooms, and sometimes slower response time for 911 calls. Sadly, we humans have all come to live with certain inconveniences caused by staffing shortages and supply chain snafus. But when pets are in crisis, they don’t understand Pandemic politics. They can’t call their Congressman, or complain to the Better Business Bureau. All they know is that they’re in pain and need help. And that brings me to a growing problem in this country: a shortage of veterinarians and vet techs.

MSN.com reports that according to a study by Mars Veterinary Health, there are barely enough veterinarians right now to cover the current demand for pet medical care. The reason? A recent rise in pet ownership and a corresponding demand for veterinary care.

Veterinary clinics across the country are cutting back on hours of operation and some have closed altogether. Numerous sources cite the Pandemic as the main reason for this crisis. Petfinder.com spokesperson Lorie Westhoff told CNN.com that inquiries about pet adoptions increased by 70% between March 2020 and March 2021. And, Mark Cushing, CEO of the Animal Policy Group says that Millennials and Gen Zers alone are adopting pets, “at higher rates than their predecessors.” Meanwhile, according to the ASPCA, 90% of folks who adopted a pet during the Pandemic, kept their pet. 

In a perfect world, pet adoptions are a good thing, but in a post Pandemic reality, no good deed goes unpunished. CNN.com reports that according to Dr. Douglas Kratt, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, “client wait times now average 20 minutes, up from 11 minutes in 2019.” With all due respect to Dr. Kratt, he doesn’t live in the Triad, where wait times can be up to three hours for walk-ins, and over an hour even if you have a scheduled appointment. One statistic I do believe, however, is that half of all Vet Techs tend to burn out and quit within their first five years. 

Certainly, being overworked and receiving inadequate pay are contributing factors to burnout, but so are the types of “patients” being treated. Jennifer Serling, president-elect of the Association of Veterinary Technician Educators tells CNN, “Unlike RNs and physician assistants, vet techs are responsible for providing care to multiple species that can’t talk and tell us what’s wrong. Unlike a hospital or a doctor’s office which has specialty nurses and doctors for everything, veterinary technicians are required to do it all.”

Not to make this a personal issue, but my family has been a victim of staffing shortages, including recently at the Triad’s leading emergency animal care hospital. Open 24/7, this is THE pet emergency facility that local vets refer their clients to. So, when one of our dogs was having a prolonged, after-hours asthma attack, my wife and I drove him to this ER mecca (I won’t mention what clinic it is, but they’re located just off Guilford College road, and their name starts with Carolina Veterinary Specialists). We arrived at 10:30 p.m., and, as instructed by the sign in the parking lot, I called the receptionist to let her know we were at the front door. Instead of checking us in, she said, “Sorry we’re not seeing patients tonight.” “But you’re a 24-hour emergency hospital,” I said. “We’re not seeing patients,” she repeated coldly. I asked why. “It’s a staffing shortage,” she said. “So, you don’t have a doctor inside?” I asked. “Yes, but the doctor can’t see patients because we don’t have enough staff. You’ll just have to bring your dog back in the morning.” Fortunately, our dog’s attack subsided, but what if it hadn’t? I don’t know if the hospital’s vet techs didn’t show up because of burnout or not. All I know is that no ER doctor of any kind should ever refuse to treat an emergency case, even if he’s the only one in the building. Speaking of which, not only is there a dearth of vets to meet demand now, what’s worse is there aren’t enough vets coming along in the pipeline either. 

Mars Veterinary Health reports that, based on the current demand for pet health care, 41,000 vets will need to enter practice over the next ten years. The problem is that only about 2,500 graduates become veterinarians each year, which means we’ll have a shortage of 15,000 vets by 2030. So, what’s the solution? For that, we can look to Arizona.

There, the State legislature just passed the Arizona Veterinary Loan Assistance Program, which will reimburse student loans up to $100,000 to veterinarians who graduate after January 2023. To receive the reimbursement, vets must work in Arizona for four years, with two of those years spent in a city, county, or nonprofit shelter. Other states like North Dakota now offer a variation of the program, and there’s also a federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program available. It’s tax money well spent, and it’s welcome news to pet owners. Steve Farley, CEO of the Humane Society of Southern Arizona told DVM.com“Thanks to this budget appropriation, at least 58 new veterinarians will come to work in Arizona by the end of 2023. Moving forward, making this appropriation annual will save countless lives while growing our economy, a win-win solution to an intractable problem. This is a victory for animal lovers across the State and is a great example of the benefits that accrue to our residents when our leaders work together for the common good.”

Unfortunately, Arizona is too far for me to drive for veterinary care, so I just hope the North Carolina legislature will do more to alleviate our own shortage of vets and vet techs. Until then, a lot of pets in need of emergency care will, in the words of a local vet receptionist, “Just have to come back tomorrow.” 

 

Jim Longworth is the host of Triad Today, airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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