Approximately 75 million pets in the U.S. may not have access to necessary veterinary care by 2030, in part due to a shortage of veterinarians, according to a study released in September by Banfield Pet Hospital. Here, preliminary data from the New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association’s ongoing business survey show that nearly half (47.5%) of respondents say they need to hire more full-time veterinarians, nearly one-third (32%) say they need to hire more part-time veterinarians, and 58% say they need to hire more full-time technicians. Just 17% of respondents thus far say they don’t need any more staff.
“We need more veterinarians – and veterinary technicians – in New Jersey and just about everywhere else, including states with vet schools. This is a national issue, not just here in [New Jersey],” explained NJVMA Executive Director Phillip Russo. “One stat I read said there were six job openings for every new graduate this year.”
While the results of the survey may change as more responses file in, Russo said he believes they’re “pretty accurate in depicting the status right now” in New Jersey.
The shortage wasn’t caused by the pandemic—no, veterinarians are not the new toilet paper, nor are they the new bicycle—but it didn’t help. “There was a shortage of qualified candidates in the veterinary profession before the pandemic started. There’s been a shortage of candidates during the recent years, and the pandemic has not changed that. In fact, the pandemic has contributed to a greater demand for veterinary care and services, which has led to a greater need for animal health and veterinary employers to hire,” explained Stacy Pursell, executive search consultant and president at The Vet Recruiter. “Because of the pandemic, people were spending more money than ever on their pets, and that includes in all areas—veterinary care, pet food, and pet tech, to name a few.”
Pursell is based in Tulsa and has clients all over the country, including several in New Jersey. Her phone has been ringing off the hook from veterinary offices looking for vets. This phenomenon isn’t new: she noticed it during the Great Recession in 2008, and it starts, she said, with the schools. “Every vet school has a limited number of seats, and the schools are not expanding their capacity enough to keep up with the demand,” she said.
According to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, the number of first-year seats at U.S. colleges of veterinary medicine increased an average of 2.4% per year. The majority of applicants are not accepted. At the two veterinary schools nearest New Jersey, Cornell University and Virginia-Maryland Regional College, the applicant to seat ratio is 9.2:1 and 11.5:1, respectively.
Shifting cultural norms on work-life balance mean the current crop of veterinarians and the ones coming into the field work fewer hours than the dog doctors of the past, Pursell said. “We’re retiring about 3,000 vets a year. The vets that are retiring, they worked full time, some of them working 50, 60, 70 hours a week. With the work-life balance trend, what’s happening is they’re now having to hire two veterinarians to work the hours one used to work,” she added.
Not only do millennial veterinarians prioritize work-life balance, their contemporaries are the largest swath of pet owners.
Millennials make up 31% of pet owners and Gen Z makes up another 11%, according to Statista. “It used to be that people would get married, have kids, then get a dog. Now they get a dog before they have a house,” Pursell said. “They’re not just getting one dog. They’re having two or three [and] they’re in the house sleeping in the bed. [Younger owners] are putting a higher importance on and are more in tune with their pets, especially with the pandemic because they’re home.”
On top of a years-long veterinary field shortage, the pandemic brought on a well-reported pet boom: 12.6 million American households got a new pet from March 2020 to January, according to a COVID-19 Pulse Study by the American Pet Products Association.
According to the NJMVA’s ongoing business survey as of June 1, 52% of respondents say they are seeing an increase of anywhere from 11% to 20% in patient visits compared with their pre-COVID numbers. “This could certainly be related to the pandemic because more people obtained pets during the pandemic,” Russo said.
Banfield Animal Hospital, which has 20 locations in New Jersey and more than 1,000 nationwide, had about half a million more pet visits in 2020 than in 2019. Use of its telehealth service, which debuted last March, more than doubled in volume through December.
Pursell projects the shortage will get worse before it gets better. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, certain occupations within the veterinary profession are set to grow at a rate of 19% during the 10-year period between 2016 and 2026. By 2026, there will be 50,000-plus more veterinary jobs than there were in 2016.
“Some veterinary employers don’t fully recognize the reality of the current marketplace. They may believe that they have the leverage in hiring situations, but they do not,” Pursell said. “The vets are getting eight, nine, ten offers. They can command the pay, the hours. The employer doesn’t have as much leverage in this job market. They need this vet to work for them more than the vet needs this job.”