Journalists are finally putting a long-overdue spotlight on the veterinarian shortage affecting millions of Americans and their beloved pets. The problem, however, goes beyond the wrenching experience of not being able to find treatment for your dog or cat. If you eat meat, got the COVID vaccine or hope that one day there will be a cure for cancer, then you too will be impacted by the shortage, as veterinary medicine is also used to maintain the health of food production animals, oversee the responsible use of lab animals in clinical trials, and conduct cancer research that benefits both animals and humans. For the health of our animals and ourselves, it is critical that we address the crisis at the source and significantly improve the ability to enter the field.
As a student who will begin veterinary school this fall, I know only too well how we got to this breaking point. The expensive, taxing and at times demoralizing application process made clear that the veterinarian shortage is a problem that begins long before a person becomes a burned-out emergency clinician. It starts with the pipeline to veterinary school.
It is often said that it seems harder to get into veterinary school than medical school. Whether or not that is true, the undeniably small number of veterinary medicine programs ensures that admission is highly selective. According to the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges, there are only 32 accredited veterinary education programs in the United States — fewer than one school per state.
For instance, as a Maryland resident, my “in-state” school is Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, which prioritizes students from Maryland and Virginia, as well as West Virginia. As residency dramatically increases chances of acceptance, sharing in-state priority among three states makes the admissions process even more competitive.
Moreover, with so few veterinary schools, it will be nearly impossible to meet the need cited in a recent report for 41,000 new companion animal veterinarians by 2030.
In addition to the extremely selective application process, there are substantial socioeconomic barriers to the profession that serve as a powerful deterrent to even considering such a career. To apply, students must undertake a rigorous pre-med like curriculum during their undergraduate education and spend hundreds of dollars in application and testing fees. Even achieving veterinary school readiness is particularly difficult because, although there is some overlap, there is no standard undergraduate curriculum required by all schools. In addition to the usual pre-med requirements in biology and chemistry, for example, many veterinary schools require applicants to complete additional animal-related courses that are not offered at all universities, such as “medical terminology” and “animal nutrition.” These additional courses easily add thousands of dollars to the cost of veterinary school readiness.
The financial and academic burdens to position oneself to apply to veterinary school are intensified because they also come with a work requirement. Students hoping to go to veterinary school are required to accumulate “shadowing” hours working with multiple types of animals. To be competitive, a veterinary school hopeful must have thousands of hours of these experiences, which often pay little more than minimum wage — if they pay at all. Thus, the enormous burden of debt from veterinary school itself, coupled with the financial requirements prior to matriculation, undoubtedly deter a large swath of the population from even applying. And once accepted, costs continue to mount. For instance, I recently spent $1,200 (not covered by insurance) for a school-required rabies vaccine series in addition to the cost of tuition, fees and living expenses.
Finally, the veterinary medicine crisis is, as so many things are, heavily gendered. The majority of human physicians are men, while the majority of veterinarians are women. Both animal and human medicine require four years of graduate education, with some veterinary graduates choosing to complete an internship and residency. Yet veterinarians earn on average far less than their human medicine counterparts. This is in addition to the oft-expressed perception that veterinarians are “lesser” medical professionals.
All of these factors, combined with the abuses experienced by providers that recent articles describe, raises the question: Who can and would seek to enter the veterinary profession? The answer, statistics show, is most often socioeconomically privileged white women with a love for animals. Countless other individuals, who would provide outstanding care and whose research efforts would benefit all of society, may never consider veterinary medicine. Those who persevere often enter the profession burned out before they ever treat their first patient.
The cost of this approach is more than delayed care for a cherished pet. It impacts human and nonhuman animals alike, and we must find a way to do better.
Leah Fine (Leah.Fine@tufts.edu) will enter the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University this fall.