Millie, a brown and white dog with soft eyes, quivered but patiently sat through her routine check-up on a rainy Tuesday morning. Veterinarian Dr. Kurt Fennema moved quickly, checking her health, administering shots and talking to her owner about medications.
In less than 30 minutes, Millie waltzed back out the door of Northside Veterinary Hospital in Muskegon.
Fennema paused for a few minutes to look at a yellow block of appointments for the day.
“Everybody’s short staffed,” he said.
Michigan animal hospitals are buckling under the weight of a nationwide shortage of veterinarians. As the profession grapples with high stress, burnout, turnover and crippling student debt—issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic—doctors are becoming increasingly difficult to find.
“Certainly, we’re feeling the same hurt that’s being felt in other areas of the country. We’re all kind of in the same boat,” said Dr. Erin Howard, president of the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association.
The Northside Veterinary Hospital has been trying to hire another veterinarian for three years to staff its two locations with no success.
“It’s frustrating for a lot of reasons,” said Alisha Lopez, who’s been a Northside veterinarian technician for nearly six years. “Because we want to be able to serve these people. We don’t want to have to turn people away.”
Fennema, a relief veterinarian from Ann Arbor, was brought in to fill some of the gaps after the clinic dropped from five full-time doctors to two. He says it can be overwhelming seeing an inbox full of requests from animal hospitals “desperate for help.”
At Veterinary Care Specialists in Milford, a village 40 miles northwest of Detroit, Peter Barnes is constantly trying to find doctors to staff the 24/7 emergency care clinic.
“This has been going on for quite a few years now,” he said. “It’s been an ongoing problem and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.”
According to the American Veterinarian Medical Association (AVMA), there were 18 open veterinarian positions for every one jobseeker last year. Veterinarian employment is expected to grow 17% in the next decade, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows, as people retiring or leaving the field create 4,400 open positions every year.
Howard says Michigan is also feeling this pinch, but the scope of the problem is hazy.
“Six, seven, eight, nine—there are ten pages of classified ads looking for veterinarians,” she said flipping through The Michigan Veterinarian quarterly magazine. “It has significantly increased, the amount of hospitals that are looking for veterinarians.”
High stress is a key industry concern
With long hours, late nights, unpredictable schedules and the emotional strain of caring for animals, Howard says “drastic problems” have pushed veterinarian mental health into the spotlight.
About 92% of veterinarians reported increased stress as a top mental health concern in a recent study from Merck Animal Health and the AVMA. Veterinarians are also 2.7 times more like to die by suicide than the general population, Merck reported in 2020.
“We deal with a lot of very sick animals and people have to pay for this out of their pocket. So it just makes it more stressful for them and also makes it more stressful for my doctors because it’s harder for them to do the job they want to do for the patients,” Barnes said.
Morale problems often pop up when veterinarians witness pet owners struggle to pay for care or make tough decisions about not treating their animal because they can’t afford it.
“That becomes very tough on your mental health, day in and day out,” Howard said.
Veterinarians can also face physical, emotional or verbal abuse from the public, according to Howard, with internet reviews and comments amplifying attacks. It can be a “thankless profession,” Lopez says, for her colleagues who grapple with limited time and hefty patient loads.
“They are overworked, underpaid and they put their heart and souls into this career for not a lot in return,” she said.
Student debt goes ‘up and up and up’
Compounding on-the-job stressors, veterinarians are saddled with significant student loans with 88% reporting debt as a leading cause of stress.
“The cost of veterinary education has gone up and up and up,” Howard said. “And over the years as the cost of tuition has gone up, unfortunately salaries have not correlated with the increased cost of education.”
On average, veterinarians owe roughly $157,000 after graduating—about 334% higher than the national student debt level of $37,000. Although this compares other medical professionals, the debt for veterinarians is roughly double their annual income whereas the debt-to-income ratio for physicians ranges from 89% to 95%.
“That puts a heck of a lot of pressure and stress on that individual to say, how do I tackle this?” Howard said.
The debt crisis and a shortage of rural veterinarians prompted the federal government to offer $25,000 a year in student loan relief to those working in underserved areas. Last year, US Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, introduced a bill to eliminate taxes on that program.
Issues become ‘acutely worse’ during pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic, which shutdown in-person appointments and led to a boom of pet services, only worsened these underlying issues.
“If anything, our client base has grown exponentially,” Lopez said. “We’ve had to stop taking new clients just for the simple fact that we don’t have enough bodies to see the pets that need to be seen”
A backlog of appointments flooded Michigan animal hospitals last year which saw a 2.5% increase in visits. Revenue also increased 10.6% in Michigan, the AVMA reports, as pet owners asked for more services and expenses increased.
“It’s very multi-faceted as to why we have these certain stressors, but they’ve been made acutely worse by the stress of having to deal with so much more of an influx of patients,” Howard said. “And we don’t have any increased time to handle those.”
Fennema, fatigued by working overnights as an emergency vet, became a relief doctor late last year. He says the pandemic changed “everybody’s work life,” especially for veterinarians who now relied on phone calls to break difficult news to pet owners.
“People they would come in, and we never met them unless you’re euthanizing their pet really, so they come in with major issues, and you have to tell them on the phone you either need to do a surgery or this is a life -threatening thing,” he said.
The pandemic only aggravated the industry burnout as 44% of veterinarians considered leaving the field last year—a 6% increase from 2020, according to the AVMA.
“This vicious cycle makes things worse,” Howard said.
‘We have to remain optimistic’
To cope with these compounding issues, the veterinary world is evolving. Workplace culture, work-life balance and recruitment incentives have all become focal points of the field.
Barnes, who’s been running animal hospitals for four decades, says the biggest changes have come in recent years. His independently owned clinic, Veterinary Care Specialists, partnered with an equity group last year to start offering tuition relief to new graduates and ongoing education opportunities.
“It was very difficult to get qualified candidates and to compete,” Barnes said. “So now that we’ve joined this group we have a lot more assistance.”
Recent job listings in Michigan show more clinics are promoting student loan assistance, ranging from full repayment to Northside Veterinary Hospital offering $50,000 total over five years. Other highlights include flexible schedules, mentorship, signing bonuses and on-staff social workers.
“It’s a daunting task, but we have to remain optimistic that we’re going to be able to fix these things or make them better than they are today,” Howard said.
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