Key takeaway

In recent years, the number of dogs and cats in the US has increased 39%, while the number of vets has only risen 4%. The massive shortage of veterinarians has led to long waits for vet appointments as well as severe burnout for vets. To help relieve strain on the veterinary system, we should look to solutions that greatly increased access to human healthcare.

During a hectic family dinner in July of 2021, my Corgi, Eddie, got into a bag of trail mix that fell on the floor. By the time I realized it had chocolate and raisins (two things that could kill a dog), he had already devoured half the bag. I frantically called vet after vet. They were all too busy.

One vet’s office suggested I call a pet poison hotline, where I spent $75 to have someone tell me I needed to take Eddie to an emergency vet. Back to square one. Out of sheer desperation, I drove to an emergency vet 35 miles away and waited 8 hours in a parking lot into the early morning for a slot to open up. Finally, I was able to get Eddie the life-saving treatment he needed. 

A crisis of vanishing veterinarians

It didn’t have to be this way — and even 10 years ago, it wasn’t common to wait hours for an emergency or weeks to get a regular veterinary appointment. The veterinary industry has been spiraling toward this moment thanks to a big increase in the number of pets in the US and a shortage of vets. With limited access to vet appointments, more and more people are going to the emergency vet for everyday issues, making it harder for pets like Eddie to get the care they need in a true emergency. And this situation will only continue to get worse for the foreseeable future.

 In 2020, there were approximately 187 million pet dogs and cats in the US.1 In 2018 there were approximately 135 million2 — that’s a 39% increase. During that same period, the number of veterinarians increased only 4%, from 113,394 in 20183 to 118,624 in 2020.4 Put another way, there’s only 1 vet per roughly 1,500 pets. 

The overworked and underpaid pet doctor

So what has led to the vet deficit? For starters, vets are overworked and underpaid. This has contributed to both an increased number of vets exiting the profession and fewer people willing to take on the massive cost associated with becoming a vet. The median vet made (U.S. Department of Labor) $99,250 in 2020 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,5 while the average vet school debt in 2019 was around $150,000 with some owing over $400,000.6 There’s also a large number of board-certified vets nearing retirement in the next 15 years according to the AVMA.7

Besides the lack of pay, vets face a grueling schedule that’s a result of the vet shortage. It’s not unusual to have 10–12 hour days and see 30+ patients per day. Combined with crushing debt and compassion fatigue, this has contributed to an alarming suicide rates among vets. According to a study by the AMVA and Merck Animal Health, veterinarians are 2.7 times more likely than the general public to die by suicide.8 And a 2021 AVMA survey showed that an estimated 44% of private veterinary practitioners stated that they’re thinking of leaving the profession before retirement, which would only exacerbate the current problem.9

How vet techs can help increase access

To solve the vet workforce crisis, the status quo in the veterinary industry needs to change. First, state veterinary medical boards and associations should start allowing veterinary technicians to perform more medical tasks and prescribe medications — just as nurse practitioners and physician assistants do in human healthcare. When states increased the scope of practice for nurse practitioners and physician assistants in human healthcare, it greatly improved access without sacrificing quality. Doing the same for vet techs can similarly impact the veterinary world. But just as there’s been resistance to this in human healthcare, veterinary trade groups are resisting this change.

Relieving strain on vets through virtual care

Another area that has faced major resistance is telemedicine. A number of states, including California and Texas, still require a physical exam of a pet before any telemedicine services can be performed. While that was originally true in human healthcare as well, the industry has evolved to let the doctor decide whether it’s appropriate to provide care via telemedicine, which is now available in all 50 states. The veterinary industry should follow suit to both increase access to care and provide overworked vets with much-needed flexible work hours and greater pay.

As a cofounder of Hims (a pioneer in human telehealth), I knew I could use the lessons I learned from my experience there to make a difference in the veterinary world — for veterinarians, pets, and pet parents. This is why I started Dutch. I saw firsthand the positive impact of telehealth on patients at Hims and I know this can be done for pets as well.

It’s time to modernize the industry to save it

The bottom line is we can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. Change is hard, but we’re facing a growing crisis that seems to only be getting worse. As the pandemic rages, 23 million households have acquired a pet and they’ll all need care.10 Pet telehealth services like Dutch can help pet parents get the care they need for many health issues faster, while freeing up local vets for issues that require in-person care. With greater access to care, there will hopefully be more happy endings like Eddie’s — without all the stress, waiting, and extra costs.

Joe Spector is the CEO and founder of Dutch as well as the former cofounder of Hims.

References

  1. Chalabi, Mona. “Pets prove to be the pandemic's cute, furry growth area.” The Guardian, 22 January 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2022/jan/21/pets-ownership-pandemic-dogs-cats. Accessed 12 May 2022.
  2. “US pet ownership statistics.” American Veterinary Medical Association, https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/reports-statistics/us-pet-ownership-statistics. Accessed 12 May 2022.
  3. “US veterinarians 2018.” American Veterinary Medical Association, https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/reports-statistics/market-research-statistics-us-veterinarians-2018. Accessed 12 May 2022.
  4. “US veterinarians 2020.” American Veterinary Medical Association, https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/reports-statistics/market-research-statistics-us-veterinarians. Accessed 12 May 2022.
  5. U.S. Department of Labor. “Veterinarians : Occupational Outlook Handbook : US Bureau of Labor Statistics.” Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/veterinarians.htm. Accessed 12 May 2022.
  6. American Veterinary Medical Association. “Mixed news on student debt.” American Veterinary Medical Association, 20 January 2020, https://www.avma.org/blog/mixed-news-student-debt. Accessed 12 May 2022.
  7. American Veterinary Medical Association. “Census of veterinarians finds trends with shortages, practice ownership.” American Veterinary Medical Association, 26 June 2019, https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2019-07-15/census-veterinarians-finds-trends-shortages-practice-ownership. Accessed 12 May 2022.
  8. American Medical Veterinary Association, and Merck Animal Health USA. “Significant Study on Veterinary Wellbeing Reveals Importance of Continued Focus on Personal and Professional Health and Well-Being Among Veterinarians.” Merck Animal Health USA, 18 January 2020, https://www.merck-animal-health-usa.com/newsroom/wellbeing-study-2020. Accessed 12 May 2022.
  9. Nolen, Scott. “Practice inefficiencies compound veterinary stress.” American Veterinary Medical Association, 17 November 2021, https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2021-12-01/practice-inefficiencies-compound-veterinary-stress. Accessed 12 May 2022.
  10. “New ASPCA Survey Shows Overwhelming Majority of Dogs and Cats Acquired During the Pandemic Are Still in Their Homes.” ASPCA, 26 May 2021, https://www.aspca.org/about-us/press-releases/new-aspca-survey-shows-overwhelming-majority-dogs-and-cats-acquired-during. Accessed 12 May 2022.