Today's veterinarian shortage: How it could affect your dog or cat

Veterinarians across the country are feeling burned out today — potentially affecting you and your pet as you face longer-than-usual wait times for vet appointments, plus other issues. 

Even before today's pet adoption boom (which was brought about by the coronavirus pandemic), animal health care providers had been facing workplace stress. 

"There has been a large influx of pets, even prior to the pandemic, while class sizes to create veterinarians and vet nurses have stayed the same," Oregon-based Dr. Cherice Roth, chief veterinary officer at Fuzzy, The Pet Parent Company, revealed to Fox News Digital in an interview this week.

"We have also seen more [pet] patients to treat, all while having more people than ever leave the industry without the ability to replace them," she continued. 

The reasons that veterinarians are fleeing the profession "range from high debt-to-income ratio to student loan burden to emotional blackmail," she said. 

Here's why this matters: Seventy percent of U.S. households, or about 90.5 million families, own a pet today, according to the 2021-2022 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA). 

This is up from 56 percent of U.S. households in 1988 — the first year the survey was conducted — and 67 percent back in 2019.

Why veterinarians are burning out

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that "close to one in five households" welcomed a dog or cat at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

That accounted for "approximately 23 million American households," according to 2019 U.S. Census data the ASPCA sourced.

"This pet boom across the U.S. led to significantly higher demand for veterinary care while the number of veterinarians and technicians didn't grow to absorb that demand," Rakesh Tondon, co-founder and CEO of Dr. Treat, a San Francisco-based pet health and wellness startup, told Fox News Digital. 

"As a result of this increased demand, the teams at clinics are significantly overworked," Tondon added.

He also said the pandemic put "emotional and physical pressure" on veterinarian teams. Many working vets with children had to stay home while their kids' remote learning was in effect, resulting in a "smaller workforce in clinics."

Get breaking news alerts in the FREE FOX 13 Seattle app. Download for Apple iOS or Android. And sign up for BREAKING NEWS emails delivered straight to your inbox.

The veterinary worker shortage has persisted so long that some animal clinics have had to close their doors, according to Thomas Dock, director of communications and public information officer at Noah's Animal Hospitals, an Indiana-based vet clinic network. 

In some cases, there has also been a reduction in the number of students graduating from vet tech programs due to the pandemic.

Markiva Contris, Licensed Vet Tech (LVT) & Professor at the Veterinary Technology Program at Pierce College, says they can traditionally take 32 students a year into the vet tech program.    

"We are a public community college," she says.  "It’s a two-year program and upon graduation, our students can sit for the national board exam and become vet techs in the state of Washington.  We had to reduce the number of students we could take when the pandemic hit to maintain social distancing."

Contris says they currently have a maximum of 24 students in a class per year.  She says the program is hoping to go back to the 32 class cap in 2023. 

She says smaller classes have been a trend with the pandemic affecting the majority of in-class or face-to-face, grounded programs: "We really had to scramble to be able to teach all the skills that are required in a remote or hybrid situation.  We all took a hit on enrollment. But we’ve experienced a technician shortage nationwide for 20 – 25 years."

"We had a lot of folks who went out and got pandemic pets so all of a sudden there is an influx of pet ownership.  On top of that, we are in a profession where we could not isolate, can’t do jobs remotely," Contris said. 

What many pet owners are doing wrong

Roth — of Fuzzy, The Pet Parent Company — said that new pet owners make up a good number of veterinary visits, often because they’re making errors in pet care.

"Common pet parent mistakes" include "inappropriate feeding, toxicity from common human medications into the pet, or preventable illness like flea allergy dermatitis or pyometras," Roth said. (The latter is a reproductive infection common among older, unspayed female dogs.)

Dr. Felicity Moffatt, lead veterinarian at Dr. Treat in San Francisco, told Fox News Digital that veterinarians and technicians are feeling pressure from the rising costs associated with veterinary care.

"Veterinarians and their teams hear the anxiety and stress from clients who have been waiting for an extended period due to overwhelmed practices," she said. "Or [clients] do not understand the cost of veterinary services and the subsequent need for veterinary insurance."

She added, "Many clinics have had to cut [their] hours due to a lack of technicians or veterinarians."

"This creates a situation where veterinary staff have to turn away sick pets," she said, "which goes against everything we believe in, and results in pets not having access to the care they need."

What vets wished pet owners knew (surprise!)

As helpful as it is to know what’s causing burnout today among veterinarians, animal clinics want pet owners to be aware of several considerations before they make the trip to the office.

"Pet owners are asked to be patient and understand that, like many business types, veterinarians are facing staffing shortages and may not be able to see your pet as quickly as they have in the past," said Dock of Noah's Animal Hospitals.

"Understand that emergency animal hospitals run like human ERs — and that the most critical cases are seen first, regardless of who got to the hospital first."

Dr. Roth recommends that before making an appointment, pet owners check the resources that animal care providers feature on their websites to see if there are answers to common questions.

"Often, there is an over-the-counter option to help take care of the issue," she also said. 

"If a vet visit is required, we’re able to steer you in the right direction as to what that appointment should look like, as far as diagnostics and even potential therapies to ask for," Roth added. 

Why these pet appointment tips make sense

Pete Wedderburn — AKA Pete the Vet, a veterinary columnist at The Telegraph (U.K.) — shared three key tips for pet owners who wish to have a smoother-sailing pet appointment.

1. Ask how long your pet's appointment will be. Veterinarians tend to feel less stressed when an appointment is scheduled with a longer time slot, Wedderburn noted. 

2. Take out pet insurance. Purchasing pet insurance before a scheduled appointment will likely ease the "financial stress" that both pet owners and veterinarians feel at the checkout counter, Wedderburn said.

3. Try a kinder, gentler approach toward your vet. Clients who are "unreasonable, angry or just plain mean" to their veterinarians are a huge stressor. It's why Wedderburn recommends that pet owners remain cordial with vets during face-to-face interactions and on social media as well. 

In other words — be kind to your vet, not just to your pet.

Why we can't ignore veterinarian burnout

Tondon of San Francisco's Dr. Treat said that industry burnout led many vets to leave the animal care workforce altogether.

That fact has made it "even harder" for pet owners to find veterinary care — even during emergencies.

"Some studies show that by 2030, tens of millions of pets may not be able to get care because of the shortage of veterinarians across the U.S.," he added. 

How pet owners can help

Roth said that "pet parents should be concerned" about today's veterinarian burnout.

"This is an amazing opportunity for pet parents to get involved and advocate for veterinary professionals as well as their pets," she said. 

"[You can] ask your regulators and legislators to move toward broader allowance of telemedicine for pets," she advised.

Wedderburn, for his part, said pet owners can help to "counter the negativity that often brings vets down" by saying "thank you" to a veterinarian once an appointment has concluded. 

Then, once back home, consider posting a positive review online for the veterinarian or clinic.