California sounds the alarm on a veterinary shortage impacting shelters across the country

New study shows suffering, euthanasia in shelters will rise without immediate action

By guest blogger Dr. Jennifer Scarlett, CEO of the San Francisco SPCA.

Map of California showing unfilled veterinarian and technicians positions in shelters.
Filled and unfilled positions on a per-1,000 animal annual intake basis
The number of filled Veterinary and RVT positions per 1,000 animal annual intake are metrics that help to normalize and evaluate the capacity for organizations to provide care.

For some time, animal advocates have sounded the alarm about the growing shortage of veterinarians and veterinary care staff across the nation. Earlier this year, we led a statewide survey* to investigate the impact of this crisis. The results are in, and the situation is even more dire than we expected. 

Today, 344,000 California shelter animals do not have adequate access to veterinary care staff; 68% of shelters cannot consistently provide complete care to treat conditions commonly seen in shelters, such as fractures, eye injuries, and dental problems; and 40% of animal shelters cannot provide consistent access to spay and neuter services, which are required in California before animals can be adopted, according to the statewide survey. 

The effects of this crisis are far-reaching, creating a downward spiral of challenges that impact shelter animals, communities, shelter budgets, and staff. 

Impact on shelter animals

Chart showing the main reason for unfilled positions is inability to recruit, not budget constraints.

Lack of access to veterinary care in shelters means animals wait longer for care and languish in shelters, which negatively impacts animals’ physical and mental health. One survey respondent said, “We’ve got more dogs than we’ve ever had that are staying for longer periods of time, that all have medical problems.” 

Backlogs in veterinary care lead to overcrowding, increased spread of disease, unnecessary suffering, and even euthanasia of animals who are healthy or treatable. One respondent shared, “I would say we have animals actually dying in our shelter that if we had proper medical experience, medical staff on board, would not have passed.” Another respondent said, “Our current distemper outbreak is a result of lack of access to care. We’re euthanizing animals as soon as they test positive, whether it’s low positive or high positive.” 

Longer stays don’t just affect animals physically, as one response reveals. “These are dogs that were with us for way, way too long that we’ve tried everything. We couldn’t find a foster home for them, and they deteriorated in the shelter.” 

78% of shelters are unable to consistently provide low-cost spay/neuter services, which can often lead to more “unwanted” animals surrendered to shelters.

68% of shelters cannot consistently provide complete care to treat conditions commonly seen in shelters, such as fractures, eye injuries, and dental problems.

Of the shelters that have budgeted positions for veterinarians and veterinary nurses, more than 50% of those positions remain vacant due to a lack of candidates.

Impact on communities 

Lack of access to veterinary care means shelters have no choice but to limit community safety net services, intake prevention, adoptions, and foster programs. Shelters’ reduced ability to provide spay and neuter services was named as the most critical unmet need. The problem impacts shelter ability to meet legal mandates and contributes to shelter overcrowding. 

One respondent said, “When our vet told us they could only do five spay/neuter surgeries a day, that means animals were being held here for two weeks or more waiting to go to the vet. That quickly became unsustainable because I’m out of kennel space.” Another said, “We have placed 700 animals that need spay/neuter right now. So, they’re currently in the foster care system only waiting on their space. That’s a huge backlog.” 

Limited veterinary care and spay/neuter services negatively impact public spay/neuter services, including community cat programs that, when functional, greatly reduce stray populations as well as shelter intakes. One respondent shared, “Our community cat program is nowhere near where it should be. I think we…made a lot of headway pre-pandemic and it’s like, we’re right back to ground zero.” 

Lack of access in the community means more pet guardians are turning to emergency clinics to address basic veterinary care—leaving clinics with reduced ability to address emergency cases. A respondent said, “You hear horror stories of people putting their dog or their cat in the car and starting to drive an hour, two hours away and the animal passes on them while they’re in transport. Just because there isn’t any local support.” 

Increased length of stay, overcrowding, and disease outbreaks add strain to shelter finances. Incoming animals are arriving with more complex and expensive medical needs, and lack of access means some shelter staff are traveling long distances to obtain emergency care for animals, which increases salary and transportation expenses. “In the last 10 years,” one respondent said, “a budget of $42,000 (went up) to $250,000 for emergency care.” 

“We had a mama and her very young puppies come down with kennel cough. (We) had to take them all…an hour’s drive and stay there most of the night waiting for them to be seen and treated. There is a local vet 10 minutes away, but unfortunately, he does not handle after-hours emergencies and he is too busy to even help us with anything other than occasional rabies vaccinations.”  

Impact on shelter staff 

Finally, morale and well-being of shelter staff are negatively impacted by the lack of veterinary care. Turnover is high and those who remain are vulnerable to the stress. Many say they’re overwhelmed by overcrowding and emotionally challenged by animals’ poor medical conditions. Leaders say everyone is in “survival mode,” doing the best they can in a diminishing situation. 

“I think it’s mostly affecting more of the staff than anything,” said one respondent. “I’ve never seen it as bad as it’s been this last six to eight months. Staff are caught in the middle. The animals keep coming and everything we try to do to either keep them from coming in or to get them out. It’s all falling on the shoulders of the staff and I think is what’s going to crush them.” 

Another said, “Some of us don’t keep going. Some of us kill ourselves and so it is the most dangerous time in our profession, ever.” 

How can you help?

The SF SPCA, advocates, and fellow shelters are working to partner with oversight agencies for solutions. Here’s how you can help homeless animals today: 

  •   If there’s room for a new furry friend in your family, now is a great time to adopt
  •  Donate or volunteer at your local animal shelter
  •   Reach out to your local and state legislators to encourage solutions to this crisis

Our work is more important now than ever. 

We know you share our loving commitment to shelter animals. Reach out to us today if you’d like to learn more about how to help. Together, we’ll find solutions for shelter animals across our state. 

You can find the full results of our survey at 

* The survey was conducted by the SF SPCA in partnership with the UC-Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program, CalAnimals, University of Tennessee Pet Health Equity Program, Humane Society of Silicon Valley, and San Diego Humane Society. It was made possible through a California for All Animals grant from the UC-Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program.