WARRENSVILLE HEIGHTS, Ohio — Veterinary clinics in northeast Ohio face the compounded challenge of understaffing and increased demand for care. It’s a similar problem in clinics across the country, leading some researchers to believe that if trends continue, an estimated 75 million American pets could be left without healthcare by 2030.
“We are no different from virtually any other profession. And it’s no different in Ohio than it is across the country,” said Jack Advent, executive director of the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA).
According to a national report on healthcare retention from the American Animal Hospital Association, the turnover rate for veterinarians is twice that of doctors. The data also revealed that veterinary technicians have the highest turnover rate of all health care positions.
“There are a lot of challenges out there that people might not realize,” said Bethany Rohrer, supervisor of specialty technicians at the VCA Great Lakes Emergency Clinic in Warrensville Heights. “They think, ‘Oh, you can play with puppies and kittens all the time. That is certainly part of it. And even when we deal with more critical cases, those are also rewarding. But they have a mental and physical impact.
Both Rohrer and Advent said veterinary careers attract people who are passionate about helping animals and pet owners. But high stress, increased workload, and low pay might drive some to quit the profession.
“I graduated in 2000 from the school of technology. There were about 23 people in my class. There are only 6 or 7 who are still on the ground,” Rohrer said.
She explained that the level of training and expertise required to become a licensed veterinary technician in Ohio, as well as the job requirements, are comparable to what is required of human health professionals.
“An RVT, Certified Veterinary Technician, is an associate’s degree, just like an RN, a registered nurse,” she said. “But our salaries are about half of what a human nurse would earn.”
Long-standing frustrations, like the pay disparity, have been compounded by the more recent stress of increased demand for services since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Analytics firm VetSuccess found that the average number of appointments booked at U.S. veterinary clinics rose 4.5% from 2019 to 2020. The following year saw another 6.5% increase meetings.
“People were at home looking at their pets and going, ‘Huh… I wonder how long they’ve been doing this. It’s weird. And maybe [seeing] things they hadn’t noticed before,” Rohrer said of the start of the pandemic.
COVID-19 has also forced some non-emergency veterinary clinics to temporarily close their doors. During that time, Rohrer said his clinic was inundated with pet owners seeking non-emergency treatment and some clients sometimes had to wait more than 6 hours.
“Everything ended up coming to the emergency centers, whether it was a torn fingernail or an ear infection, things that we don’t usually consider emergencies,” she said. “But because their surgeries were closed, they had to come to the emergency room and we had to take care of them.”
Mars Veterinary Health researchers estimate that an additional 41,000 veterinarians will need to enter the workforce over the next ten years to meet the projected healthcare needs of American companion animals in 2030. On average, 2,500 to 2,600 graduates from vet programs each year, which would leave 15,000 vet shortages by the target date. According to this estimate, the researchers said the lack of available veterinarians could leave 75 million American pets without care.
In addition to a shortage of vets and vet techs, Advent said many clinics are currently experiencing a shortage of support staff.
“Even if you feel like your clinic has enough vets, if you can’t find the people to help you do what you need to do, you can’t perform at an optimal level,” said- he explained.
Rohrer said financial assistance to help train future vet techs and mental health support for current staff helps address recruitment and retention. She hopes to see more investment in the passion she and others have for the profession.
“I tell people all the time that I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I still look forward to coming to work every day,” she said.