Pet ownership rose to an all-time high during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 23 million American households adding a pet, and the vast majority committed to caring for those pets for the long haul, according to the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
That surge in pet ownership has only increased the pressure on local veterinary practices. For years, local veterinary practices have struggled to attract staff and help staff avoid burnout, and now they’re in near-constant demand, in contrast to the ebbs and flows of the past.
With a slew of new dog and cat owners utilizing the services of Kind Veterinary Clinic in St. Peter, staff schedules are jam-packed, said Hospital Manager Terri Heimerman. To keep up with the heightened demand, the clinic has implemented a same day care service at an increased cost to meet clients’ needs quicker.
“We’re filling up two exam rooms most every afternoon, whereas we were just doing one exam room per afternoon when it was slower,” said Heimerman. “So that’s helped a little bit so people don’t have to wait as long.”
Cannon Valley Vet Clinic in Northfield is witnessing a similar heightened workload. CVT and Manager Leah Erickson said that adjusting to the “new normal” of elevated demand hasn’t been easy. Even though Cannon Valley was able to add a veterinarian, she said the practice’s schedule has remained full.
“So many new animals were added during the pandemic, but the number of vets did not grow in our area,” she said. “Many of our clients are bringing in new animals, sometimes multiple new animals at a time.”
Dr. Matt Boisen, of Owatonna’s Fairview Animal Medical Center, commented that some of the additional business isn’t even coming from those with new pets. Cooped up at home, some of his clients paid closer attention to pets they’d had for years — and found reason for concern.
“Animals got treated better during the pandemic,” he said. “People who had been lax for years before were suddenly staring at their dogs all day.”
Because of the shortage of available staff and the abundance of new animals, some local practices have stopped accepting new clients. Others, like Fairview, have had to trim back on key services, such as animal boarding.
Those having trouble finding a veterinary clinic that can care for their pet in a timely manner should call around and “not take it personally,” said Jess Renderos with Northfield’s Countryside Animal Hospital. Countryside is among those local veterinary practices which have remained open to new clients.
Kind Veterinary Clinic in St. Peter has been fortunate to have the capacity to continue offering its regular services to new clients. Though the clinic is losing a long time staff member in the next few weeks, Kind was able to hire a new large animal veterinarian in the last couple months.
“We’re lucky we have a staff that really works well together. It gets busy and you have to do a dance so-to-speak with each other, but we really work well together.” said Heimerman. “It’s not always easy, sometimes we are short-staffed ... We continue to look for qualified, good people that might fit in with our team.”
Dr. Stephen Kromm, of Owatonna Veterinary Services, said that even as the number of pets continues to increase, there’s actually fewer students going to local veterinary schools like the one at Rochester Community and Technical College than there were decades ago.
“We have to work very, very hard to find vet technicians,” he said. “[Local veterinary schools] aren’t graduating numbers they used to, because people just aren’t applying.”
So with such a high demand, what is preventing people from entering into the veterinary field?
One barrier to entering the profession is the cost of a veterinary school education. The average veterinary school student now graduates with over $150,000 in debt, with an average starting salary of about $90,000, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Though other positions in the field, like veterinary technician, don’t require as much education, pay is far lower and has struggled to stay competitive in the market. For an average wage of around $18 an hour, vet technicians are asked to perform a difficult and intense job with great precision.
With fewer youth entering the profession, there were 18 openings for every veterinarian and six for every veterinary technician in 2021, according to the AVMA. The situation is on track to worsen significantly, with Mars Veterinary Health projecting a shortage of 15,000 veterinarians by 2030.
That projection doesn’t account for the 40% of veterinarians who were, according to a 2020 AVMA survey, considering leaving the profession due to stress, burnout and inability to maintain an appropriate work-life balance.
Even in the best of times, Renderos emphasized that being a veterinarian or vet technician is emotionally taxing, because of how hard it is to see beloved pets dealing with health challenges.
Erickson added that such burnout has been increased as the anxiety clients feel over their animal’s health is exacerbated by COVID-related stress, and oftentimes, the challenge of finding appropriate veterinary care for their pet.
Dr. Candace Born, owner of Heartland Animal Hospital in Faribault, noted that numerous studies conducted over the last decade have found that many in the veterinary field are suffering from intense psychological stress. Yet despite the challenges, she said that working as a veterinarian or veterinary tech can also be very rewarding.
For young people who love animals and wonder if the veterinary profession might be for them, Boisen noted that there are plenty of opportunities to start at entry level positions, get crucial on the job training and move up over time.
“When we used to board dogs and cats … that traditionally used to be a job for a High School or College kid — nights and weekends, and we had several situations where kennel help became vet assistance and then official vet technicians,” he said.