‘A soul killer’: what’s behind the US’s critical veterinarian shortage?

<span>Jack, a cat, receives veterinary care in Salem, New Hampshire, in 2020.</span><span>Photograph: Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images</span>
Jack, a cat, receives veterinary care in Salem, New Hampshire, in 2020.Photograph: Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images

A longstanding shortage of veterinarians in areas across the US has caused crises for some pet owners; contributed to mental health issues among veterinary staff; and could leave the country at risk in terms of food safety and public health, experts have warned.

The lack of veterinarians and veterinary professionals has been attributed to the high cost of entry, long hours and the stress of dealing with animal owners in life and death situations.

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The warning comes as Not One More Vet, a veterinarian mental health charity said it received reports of vets facing cyberbullying from clients – a troubling trend in a profession which has long had a high risk of suicide.

Laura Molgaard, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota, said the shortage can be traced back over four decades.

“Starting in about 1980, we saw an increased demand for veterinary services with an increased ownership of pets, and also an increased demand from those owners for more services for those pets,” she said.

“And then, over that amount of time, at least in the US, there was not a commensurate increase in veterinary schools or seats in those veterinary schools for a very, very long time.”

The shortages are being felt most in rural areas. Part of the reason is that veterinary school graduates have to go where the money is – given the student debt they are often lumbered with – and jobs in cities pay more. This has led to pet owners and other animal owners struggling to find care in some parts of the country – but there are risks beyond pets not receiving adequate care, Molgaard said.

“There’s a risk to things like food safety and public health. Veterinarians are an important role in protecting the health of individual animals, but also protecting the health of populations of animals. And we take an oath to protect the public health as well,” Molgaard said.

“When we don’t have veterinarians in the community, we do risk the health of animals, people and the environment they share.”

Veterinarians serve as “early detectors of animal disease”, Molgaard said, including of diseases that can be transmitted to humans. It was a vet who first identified the West Nile virus, while professionals have also been responsible for reporting outbreaks of avian influenza, African swine fever, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy – better known as “mad cow disease”.

“Veterinarians are on the frontlines of detection and surveillance for those kinds of diseases. And when we don’t have veterinarians in a community, those diseases can go undetected until it’s too late,” Molgaard said.

The pressure of the job, and the relatively low pay in comparison to careers, such as human medicine and dentistry, which require a similar level of training, can be intense. Support staff, including veterinary technicians, are often underpaid and overworked, said Liz Hughston, a veterinary technician specialist and president of the National Veterinary Professionals Union.

“We have a major problem with people leaving this profession,” Hughston said.

“The pay is not great [for veterinary technicians], and for veterinarians, it isn’t great in relation to their debt load. A lot of the veterinarians are coming out of school with huge amounts of debt: $400,000 in student debt, and then they’re getting paid somewhere between $85,000 and $105,000 a year to start.

“Most people would look at that and say: ‘Oh, that’s a good wage.’ But when you look at the amount of time that they spend in school, the amount of debt that they’re coming out with, and then to come out and not be paid all that well, in relation to their professional degree and training, I think that is one piece.”

Meanwhile, veterinary technicians, who have to complete studies in an educational program and pass the veterinary technician national exam to practice, “are not paid a living wage”, Hughston said. She said technicians and veterinarian assistants frequently find they can earn more in entry level retail or fast food jobs.

All we want to do is help animals

Liz Hughston

“Fast food sucks, but also: you’re making money. And you’re not expected to work overtime, you’re not making life and death decisions. You’re not getting bit and scratched,” she continued. “You’re not dealing with zoonotic diseases: you’re not going to get a disease from a hamburger.”

There’s also “sticker shock”, Hughston said, when pet owners find out how much certain treatments will cost. Pet insurance is not widely adopted in the US, so when a cat or dog or tortoise gets sick, the owners sometimes have to pay eye-watering bills. They frequently are not happy about the price.

“All we want to do is help animals. And then we’re faced with people that we have to deal with who are telling us how terrible we are, what terrible people we are, that we’re only after the money,” she said.

“Oftentimes, because we have the option of euthanasia in veterinary medicine, people make life and death decisions based on finances, and that is a soul killer for veterinary professionals. Because we look at that and we say: ‘We can fix this. It’s fixable.’ But the people can’t pay to fix it.”

Against this backdrop, suicide rates are high. A 2018 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that female veterinarians are 3.5 times more likely to die from suicide compared to the rest of the general population, with male veterinarians were 2.1 times as likely to die from suicide.

Gigi Tsontos, executive director of Not One More Vet, founded in response to the death of a veterinarian in 2014, said there are different reasons for the number of deaths.

“Some are the workload, some are the connection with the different things that happen in a clinic. You don’t get to go into a veterinary clinic and just pet dogs and cats all day. There’s a lot of decisions that are made that are difficult. There’s a lot of people involved. Let’s say a family comes in and they have a pet who needs a high level of care, but they can’t afford it – there’s discussing that with them,” Tsontos said.

The CDC study found that the rate of suicide among veterinarians had been high for the past three decades. A new issue that veterinary professionals face, however, is cyberbullying.

“I’ve heard stories of people claiming something happened with their pet – and they took them to a vet. And they just vilify the vet or the vet tech on social media,” Tsontos said.

“Veterinarians are trying to do the best that they can. And they care about animals, and they come into this industry because of that.”

• In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on 988lifeline.org, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org