When Madeline O’Sullivan, 21, got Alfie — an 11-month-old black-and-white border collie — in July, she was able to obtain veterinary services at a reduced cost because her uncle owns a veterinary clinic.
O’Sullivan got her furry friend spayed for free, saving considerable money. But Alfie and her owner are a rare case. A typical pet owner can spend hundreds of dollars yearly on scheduled vet visits.
These increased costs are due partly to a nationwide shortage of veterinarians that has made its way to North Central Florida. Area shelters and clinics are scarce or operate with shorter personnel.
If it weren’t for her uncle, O’Sullivan said she feared her earnings as a student assistant at Lake Wauburg wouldn’t be enough to cover the costs of emergency visits or surgeries. Other pet owners may have more stable financial situations but are still aware of the challenges.
Reagan Vesely, a 26-year-old Daytona Beach native, adopted Tater, an 18-month-old chocolate Labrador pit bull mix, in April from Faithful Friends Pet Rescue and Rehoming, a nonprofit organization focused on animal adoption.
Although the cost of Tater’s first visit to the vet was waived, Vesely still believes pet owners are put in a tight situation when it comes to veterinary care, especially in emergencies.
“That’d be pretty concerning if it was like an emergency where Tater would need surgery,” Vesely said. “I think most pet owners would, depending on how much it was, pretty much pay the cost of it.”
To help with the shortage, organizations such as the Humane Society of North Central Florida, located at 4205 NW 6th St. in Gainesville, provide resources for animals and owners. The facility counts on three specialists who are on call to provide medical care for dogs, cats and other small animals.
Those specialists include a medical director, a surgeon and a shelter veterinarian. Among their duties are treating animals, performing low-cost surgeries, and overseeing training and supplies management.
At the Humane Society of North Central Florida, veterinarians perform about 25 spay-neuter surgeries daily, or roughly 5,000 per year. But the Humane Society is a rare example of a functioning shelter. In other rural counties, such as Dixie, Hamilton and Taylor, pet owners travel several miles to find adequate treatment.
“We’re very lucky that we can afford three veterinarians,” said Margot DeConna, director of advancement at the Humane Society of North Central Florida. “There are very few rescue organizations and shelters that could say the same.”
DeConna said she believes that veterinarians, both for small and farm animals, are hard to come across.
One reason for the shortage is the cost of operations: veterinary clinics need to cover expenses such as medical supplies, equipment, employees, and insurance — and costs usually exceed profits, she said.
As veterinarians try to balance their finances with higher costs, pet owners become increasingly impatient. Customers aren’t willing to pay those prices and vent their frustrations on the employees. The taxing work environment discourages practitioners from offering their services, DeConna said.
During the pandemic, many resources used in veterinary medicine were allocated to human care. That shift led to a shortage of certain medical supplies such as oxygen and anesthesia, resulting in a significant decrease in surgeries.
Clinics and shelters couldn’t perform their usual procedures, which contributed to a spike in species overpopulation, disease outbreaks, and increased euthanasia. If animals weren’t vaccinated or spayed/neutered, diseases and over-reproduction were more likely to expand.
Another issue DeConna found was the high cost of education for veterinarians.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterinarians must complete a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree, which usually takes four years to complete at an accredited college of veterinary medicine.
To join the workforce, prospective veterinarians must also pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination, a national requirement, and other state licensing exams.
The employment of veterinarians is projected to grow by 19% — or approximately 16,800 new job openings — between 2021 and 2031, according to the statistics bureau. The average growth rate for all occupations during that span is 5%.
DeConna suggested the creation of a public relations campaign to educate pet owners to have compassion toward veterinarians and to support veterinary schools to increase the workforce and expand resources.
“I think helping the public, in general, understand just how hard these jobs are could be helpful,” DeConna said.