The nonprofit veterinarian shortage: Who will care for the pets most in need?

The national veterinary shortage is having an especially large impact on animal shelters and nonprofit veterinary clinics, according to a new study of more than 200 shelters and nonprofit veterinary clinics across the country. The study, spearheaded by Petco Love and the Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida, gives an overview of both the big picture effects of the shortage at a time of increased shelter animal intake and the human and animal cost of the ongoing crisis.

Empty operating room

Last year, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) specifically called out shelters as one of the veterinary sectors suffering the most from the shortage. Shelters in California reported that half of veterinarian and more than half of technician job vacancies were unfilled, resulting in 344,000 animals going without adequate care. A Colorado study found that the shortage had created a backlog of spay/neuter surgeries, while another national study quantified that as 2.7 million spay/neuter surgeries that were never performed.

We are completely desperate for a solution, and we need it now. Shelters are being forced into the role of providing accessible and affordable care because of this shortage … Something has to give because we are failing the people and the animals in our community.”

–Study respondent

The study, co-authored by Susanne Kogut of Petco Love and Drs. Meredith Montgomery and Julie Levy of the University of Florida, found that 73% of animal sheltering organizations (ASOs) reported being short-staffed for veterinarians. The repercussions are significant, with 91% of these organizations experiencing backlogs in spay/neuter surgeries.

The situation in access to care clinics (ATCCs) mirrors this challenge, with 72% reporting shortages in both veterinarians and veterinary support staff. This deficiency leads to prolonged waiting times for care, with over half of the clinics experiencing delays of two months or more. The authors state, “As a result, clients were waiting longer than usual for care at 45 clinics (79%), with delays of two months or more at 28 clinics (51%).” Some clinics reported waits as long as six months.

These shortages not only delay essential medical procedures but also have broader implications for animal welfare, public health, and the human-animal bond. They also severely impact the incidence of burnout in the field.

“[S]omething has to change, because every single day this continues, animals die for absolutely no reason other than there are no vets to service them.”

— Study respondent

The severe nature of the impact is underscored by the reach of the surveyed organizations. The responding shelters collectively took in 1,208,643 cats and dogs, representing approximately one quarter of the national shelter intake of 4.4 million in 2022. Eighty-two percent had their own veterinary clinics and 59% also operated public-facing veterinary clinics for community animals.

In their discussion of the study results, the authors stated:

“This study documented that nonprofit veterinary workforce shortages initially described in California and Colorado are occurring nationwide. The similarities and high personnel vacancy rates in both ASO/ATCC provide compelling evidence for a crisis in these essential services for the most vulnerable animals: those in shelters, free-roaming community cats, and pets belonging to families that can no longer access veterinary care. This nonprofit veterinary vacancy rate depletes already limited options to provide low-cost services to pet parents at a time when the economic climate, overcrowded shelters, and increasing cost of veterinary care create a greater need for more accessible services.”

Proportion of 179 animal sheltering organizations reporting veterinarian and veterinary technician and assistant shortages

The implications for animal welfare are dire. Amid rising intake and declining adoptions, shelters are facing challenges many thought were behind them. As the study authors point out, “High-quality high-volume spay-neuter (HQHVSN) clinics and ASO altering pets before adoption were significant factors contributing to the decline of shelter euthanasia from 22–25 million animals in the 1970s to approximately one million by 2022. Current reductions and delays in spay/neuter procedures jeopardize the life-saving trends of the last 50 years.”

What’s more, access to veterinary care for pets can reduce relinquishment of pets to animal shelters. Delays in accessing care can lead to poor outcomes and unnecessary euthanasia for both owned and sheltered animals.

The study authors observe that the ongoing veterinarian and technician shortage is projected to continue for another 10 years despite new veterinary colleges planned to open in the next several years. What can shelters and nonprofit clinics do to buck this trend?

A comparative analysis showed that while veterinarians value Shelter Medicine, those who remain in their positions experience better administrative relationships and decision-making involvement, while “departing veterinarians rated their roles lower in terms of relationships with administrators, team involvement, mentorship opportunities, and input into medical decisions.” Addressing these factors is essential for attracting and retaining veterinarians and support staff in nonprofit veterinary sectors.

Unsurprisingly, compensation, work-life balance, and benefits are as important in the nonprofit as the for-profit veterinary sector. Nonprofits typically have less room to maneuver in these areas, presenting challenges when competing with private practice.

Other factors to consider when recruiting and retaining veterinary team members:

  • Veterinarians in non-profit or government roles can access the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, easing financial burdens and serving as a recruitment tool for ASO/ATCC.
  • Training in Shelter Medicine and spay/neuter practices is vital for veterinarians in these settings, necessitating sustainable funding for educational programs and partnerships with veterinary schools.
  • Recruitment should focus on competitive compensation, student debt repayment options, and positive workplace culture to reduce burnout and improve retention, highlighting the rewarding aspects of non-profit veterinary work.

The study calls for a strategic response to bolster the workforce and ensure that the vital services these organizations provide can continue, safeguarding the well-being of animals and the communities that care for them. The authors conclude, “Failure to act risks reversing progress in reducing unnecessary pet euthanasia and adversely impacts the health of pets, their families, and the well-being of shelter and veterinary professionals.”

National nonprofit Petco Love partners with over 4,000 organizations, including animal shelters and veterinary care providers, and “initiated this study to comprehensively evaluate the influence of the veterinary workforce shortage on animal care within temporary sheltering organizations and community-focused veterinary services enhancing access to care.”

There is no quick fix to the severe nonprofit veterinarian shortage.  We must confront this issue with a willingness to change the existing paradigm for delivery of veterinarian care and develop innovative solutions to support those pets most in need. Otherwise, millions of pets will pay the price.

–Susanne Kogut, Petco Love President and lead study author

Susanne Kogut, Meredith L. Montgomery, Julie K. Levy et al. The nonprofit veterinarian shortage: who will care for the pets most in need? 02 February 2024, PREPRINT (Version 1) available at Research Square []