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These days, Dr. Shay Redfield said the pattern has been the same.
Her practice, West Marin Pet Hospital in Fairfax, is “booked solid, weeks out,” said the veterinarian, who said it has been “10- to 12-hour days, five days a week” since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Redfield and other vets in Marin say the county is part of a growing national trend — a shortage of veterinarians able to treat an ever-increasing number of family pets. The cause is complex, county practitioners said. Since spring of 2020, pet clinics are facing more clients — with record adoptions during stay-at-home orders — and fewer staff and resources than ever before.
Fatigue has set in for many, who are striving to serve the needs of pets countywide, they said.
“Most veterinary practices are full, and it is rare to welcome a new practice to our community,” Larkspur Landing Veterinary Hospital’s Dr. Mary Press said. “I turn away between 10 and 20 potential new clients per day.”
dr Laura Landman of San Anselmo Animal Hospital said her clinic tries to take on additional cases, knowing other doctors are booked. “But that means we don’t have time in our work days to get the rest of our jobs done,” Landman said.
Hiring new veterinarians to join a Marin practice has been challenged by the county’s high cost of living, several doctors said. Veterinarians nationwide earned a median salary of $95,460 in 2019. The best-paid 25% made $122,590 that year, while the lowest-paid 25% made $75,580, according to US News & World Report.
“Clinics everywhere have been busier, so more practices are vying for the new graduates,” said Dr. Aaron Wentzell of Fairfax Veterinary Clinic. It took more than a year to hire a new vet at his practice, he said. In years past, he’s had multiple applicants.
Press pointed to slow growth in educational institutions and a disproportionate workload on women.
“While it is still competitive to get into vet school, there has been essentially no growth of the number of vet schools in the US in the last 30 years,” she said. The gender gap in the industry — 85% of the workforce is female — places further strain as female doctors juggle home and child care duties that can affect availability for clients, she added.
Practices also struggle to hire entry level and support staff. Front desk positions average around $19 per hour, according to the workforce website Glassdoor. Nationwide, veterinary technologists and technician salaries averaged $35,320 in 2019 — $42,540 on the high end and $29,080 on the low end, according to US News & World Report.
Landman, who owns her practice, said she’s always struggled to hire support staff in Marin due to the cost of living. Despite increasing salaries, she said, “we just don’t have anyone applying.”
In Fairfax, Redfield said new hires often fail to show up for work. To fill the gap, she said, “I think we need to take a step back and say … we need to be charging more for services to pay our staff better.”
Additionally, large companies buying out local practices are part of the hiring and service woes, veterinarians agreed. In 1994, “there were zero corporate hospitals in Marin” and that now 70% are corporate-owned, making it difficult for small practitioners to vie for staff and a piece of the pharmaceutical business, Press and Redfield said.
Supply shortages also have been an issue since the pandemic began, the veterinarians said.
Wentzell said first, medical practices everywhere were hurting for hygiene supplies, such as syringes, alcohol and disinfectants.
Now, clinics struggle to get everything from regular medicines to prescription foods. Redfield said she anticipated the pandemic based on epidemiology reports in December 2019 and ordered supplies for her clinic. But they continue to need more personal protective equipment.
The vets said short supplies combined with more appointments creates frustration with clients used to wait shorter times and longer consultations. The Schaumburg, Illinois-based American Veterinary Medical Association reported a 4.5% increase in appointments in 2020 compared to 2019, and an additional 5% increase in 2021.
Meanwhile, fewer doctors are staying in the industry, and fewer graduates are arriving to take their place. The doctors said the pressure of the job, long known for its high rate of suicide, is likely part of the problem.
For more than three decades, vets have been more likely to die by suicide than the general population, and women have outpaced men, according to a pre-pandemic study released in 2018 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Seventy-five percent of the veterinarians worked in a small animal practice, the study noted.
A 2014 American Veterinary Medical Association survey of 11,627 US vets reported 9% suffering from psychological distress.
“It’s a stressful industry, compounded by a lot of different stress factors,” Redfield said. “It’s hands down, I think, the best job in the world … but it can be really wearing and emotional.”
“I think things have got to change … this is not a sustainable model that we have right now,” Landman said. “We can’t do what we used to do — it’s just physically impossible.”
If you need help, or know someone who does, call Marin’s 24/7 suicide prevention and crisis hotline at 415-499-1100.