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Wisconsinites feel the effects of national veterinarian shortage

Some pet owners experiencing delays in getting their animals treated

A veterinarian checks a dog's teeth at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine.
A veterinarian checks a dog’s teeth at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine. The school has increased its class sizes by 20 percent to help combat the veterinarian shortage. Photo courtesy of the UW School of Veterinary Medicine

When Green Bay resident Jake Erb got off work at his job as a UPS driver one day this past August, he noticed something wasn’t right with his Alaskan husky, Bea.

He frantically began calling area veterinarians in Green Bay and Appleton, but was told that none would be able to see Bea that night. Erb was told the closest place that might be able to see his dog was in Mosinee, about an hour and a half away.

Bea had an infection that had spread to her back legs and was causing difficulty walking, Erb said.

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“By morning, when I could finally get her in somewhere, it had spread to the point where we had to put her down,” he said. “I don’t want to cast blame on any of the vets or anything like that because certainly I don’t blame them for her passing. But it was very frustrating that in our time of need, we couldn’t find anyone that could help us.”

Erb’s story reflects how the national shortage of veterinarians is being felt here in Wisconsin, delaying care for some animals.

A 2021 study found that open veterinarian positions in the United States exceeded the number of qualified candidates by over 2,000 back in 2019, and it’s only gotten worse since the COVID-19 pandemic.

By 2030, almost 41,000 more vets will be required to meet animal health care needs, and — even with new veterinary graduates — there’s expected to be a shortage of nearly 15,000 veterinarians, according to Mars Veterinary Health.

As a result of the shortage, some clinics are no longer seeing new patients and some emergency clinics are no longer open at night, according to Jennifer Bloss, owner and practicing veterinarian of Brook-Falls Veterinary Hospital & Exotic Care in Menomonee Falls.

“As employers struggle to fill open positions, it puts so much more pressure on the rest of the veterinary team,” Bloss said. “It’s contributing to a sense of burnout (and) it’s contributing to a sense of almost helplessness in the veterinary sector.”

That burnout and sense of helplessness has had a negative effect on the mental health of those working in the veterinary industry, according to Jennie Gross, nurse technician and business manager at Brook-Falls.

“We’re having now to deal with clients (saying), ‘Well, don’t you care about my pet?’ And it’s like, ‘Yes, we do care about your pet, but we can only do so much in a day,’” Gross said. “We would love to be able to see all of these animals, but we just physically and emotionally can’t.”

Experts say the shortage is being caused by a variety of factors, including a spike in demand for veterinary care after the pandemic, veterinarians desiring a better work-life balance and shortages of staff positions.

Mark Markel, dean of the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, said many vets are no longer willing to work the brutal hours they did in the past.

“If veterinarians used to work 70 hours a week or 80 hours a week, and now they’re working 40, we’ve got a workforce shortage by almost half — even if we’re seeing the same number of patients,” he said.

On top of the shortage of veterinarians, the industry is also dealing with a lack of support positions, according to Jo-ell Carson, executive director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Association.

“We’re really seeing — across the nation and in Wisconsin — the shortage of staff workers, licensed technicians that help with vaccines, help with animals and clinics, as well as your support staff,” she said. “A lot of times the veterinarians are having to do some of the work of support staff.”

While many pet owners have seen delays in treating their furry friends, the shortage is impacting large animals as well.

Markel said the impact hasn’t been felt as acutely on dairy farms because most have 1,000-plus cows nowadays, and those large-scale dairy farms have a veterinarian on staff. But the shortage has been more noticeable for horses.

“On the equine side, (it’s) more challenging because they tend to be traveling all over the place because it’s not common, obviously, to see a 1,000-horse farm,” he said. “You’re going to see a farm that has a couple or a few horses.”

To combat the vet shortage, the UW School of Veterinary Medicine has increased class sizes by 20 percent, according to Markel. And Carson said enrollment in veterinary schools is up across the board.

“There is at least some light at the end of the tunnel in the sense that there are many more veterinarians being trained now than there were even five years ago, but it’s a four-year program,” Markel said. “Sadly, it’s not an instant solution, but it is a pathway where I think more veterinarians are going to be trained and come into the workforce.”

In the meantime, Carson recommends scheduling veterinary appointments as far in advance as possible.

“It’s tough when your animal’s itching or something (happens) that feels really important that you really want to help your pet with,” she said. “If the veterinarian is telling you, ‘This can wait a couple of days,’ listen to them and take their guidance. I think that will help with some of those bottlenecks so that we have the right patients going to the right clinics at the right time.”

Editor’s note: WPR’s Gaby Vinick contributed to this story.