Paging all vets: A national shortage of veterinarians strains SLO County's animal health care system



San Luis Obispo County's animal care system is feeling the burden of a national problem: a shortage of veterinarians.

Animal shelters are struggling to keep up with an escalating demand for spay and neuter surgeries, and pet owners are feeling the sting. Carol Moore, who lives in Prefumo Canyon, tried to get her new puppy spayed in January. What could have been a $75 surgery at Woods Humane Society became a bigger financial strain at a for-profit veterinary office.

"I called Woods but they were too busy," Moore said. "I emailed them, and they said they're not accepting any appointments even into the spring of 2023 and to seek out my local vet."

STRETCHED THIN Woods Humane Society is struggling to find a full-time veterinarian while being unable to meet the public service demand—the organization performed more than 5,400 spay and neuter surgeries in 2022. - PHOTO COURTESY OF WOODS HUMANE SOCIETY
  • Photo Courtesy Of Woods Humane Society
  • STRETCHED THIN Woods Humane Society is struggling to find a full-time veterinarian while being unable to meet the public service demand—the organization performed more than 5,400 spay and neuter surgeries in 2022.

Living on a ranch surrounded by neighbors' dogs, Moore was worried that her 9-month-old mixed breed puppy would get pregnant if she didn't get spayed quickly.

After getting placed on Woods' waitlist, she called her vet and found out that a spay service cost $300.

"I took her in, the doctor did a less than five-minute wellness check. They took her back for a blood draw," she said. "Then the assistant came in and said that day's visit was $217."

The vet's office also provided Moore with an estimate for the spay service—roughly $470.

"All the medications are extra. They nickeled-and-dimed me for all the medications afterwards. The total was $695," she said.

Woods is running on fumes trying to care for the animals that did get a surgery slot. With clinics in SLO and Atascadero, Woods performed 5,456 spay and neuter surgeries in 2022, according to its Communications Manager Jamie Relth.

Relth added that for-profit private veterinary practices are tough competition for nonprofits like Woods.

"As a nonprofit, it is hard for us to compete with the salaries and signing bonuses offered by private practices," Relth said. "Recent veterinary graduates looking to pay off school debts are also likely to look to the private sector before the nonprofit sector."

Woods Chief Executive Officer Neil Trent said that it's difficult to single out one reason for the veterinary shortage. But the root of the problem can start as early as veterinary school. According to the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges, there are only 32 accredited veterinary medicine colleges across the country.

"There is the question of whether there are still veterinary universities or colleges that are adequately accounting for the expansion for veterinary medicine in the small-animal area," Trent said. "Some were built quite a few years ago and have limited capacity."

WAITING FOR CARE Pet owners across SLO County are feeling the strain of a lack of veterinarians, as nonprofits and county Animal Services search for help. - COVER IMAGE FROM ADOBE STOCK
  • Cover Image From Adobe Stock
  • WAITING FOR CARE Pet owners across SLO County are feeling the strain of a lack of veterinarians, as nonprofits and county Animal Services search for help.

Veterinary schools are expensive too. The cost for the 2022-23 four-year program at UC Davis is estimated at almost $265,000 for California residents.

"In many cases, vets are coming out as new graduates, and they have quite high student loans," Trent said. "They go into the workforce quite quickly to pay it off. Once they get in and are established, at some point, very often they decide they don't want to be a full-time veterinarian and want to do part-time because they want to raise a family."

Trent added that the gender dynamic in veterinary medicine over the past 15 years has changed too. According to him, the industry was male-dominated but with the growth of small animal veterinary clinics, two-thirds of industry experts now are women. That shift could contribute to the dwindling number of veterinarians available for work.

"We are desperately short; many shelters and many private practitioners are in the same situation," Trent said. "If you want to make a routine appointment at this time, have an annual checkup or wellness exam for your pet at a private veterinarian, I've been told sometimes you have to wait two or three weeks out unless there's an emergency. That's very similar to human medicine at the moment."

The lack of consistent full-time surgeons most impacts Woods' affordable spay and neuter program. Along with its own shelter population and the animals at the county Animal Services Department that need alteration, Woods offers discounted sterilization for dogs starting at $200 and for cats at $75. Earlier, the wait time would be a few days from making the appointment. Now, procedures are being pushed to as late as March.

The nonprofit is advertising nationally and looking for as many veterinarians as possible—even if they're retired professionals who have the time to help whenever they can.

"It would take the pressure off the four folks who are helping us out at the moment," Trent said.

The need for spaying and neutering is so high in SLO County that residents requested help from Santa Barbara County. Nonprofit C.A.R.E.4Paws answered that call through its Snip & Chip program. Operating through mobile clinics, C.A.R.E.4Paws partnered with the Animals in Need Fund and Animal Shelter Adoption Partners to provide low-cost vaccines and medical care and free spays and neuters to primarily southern SLO County.

But it's facing similar hiring issues.

"It can be tough for us who provide low-cost services to pet families in need to find skilled veterinarians to be able to do high-volume spay and neuter surgeries and at the same time handle medical cases," said Isabelle Gullo, C.A.R.E.4Paws' executive director.

As a nonprofit, C.A.R.E.4Paws hustles to access grants and donations. The ongoing search for revenue sources makes hiring a second full-time veterinarian a tough decision, Gullo said. Before the pandemic, the nonprofit's budget goal was approximately $700,000. It's since jumped to $1.5 million.

SLO County and C.A.R.E.4Paws are collaborating on Feb. 19 to host a vaccine clinic and free spay and neuter procedures at the county Animal Services building on Oklahoma Avenue in SLO. Gullo told New Times that the event would mainly help pet owners from the nearby safe parking site.

"Our main mission is to help pets owned by our community members so that these pets don't end up in our shelters due to lack of resources in the home," she said.

Both Woods and C.A.R.E.4Paws are community partners of SLO County Animal Services. The county department doesn't offer spays and neuters to publicly owned pets but contracts with the two nonprofits for the surgeries before those animals are put up for adoption.

Animal Services Manager and lone veterinarian Eric Anderson told New Times that the department doesn't have the facilities to perform surgeries, which is why it works with Woods. He mentioned that the problem of low veterinary staffing is far-reaching.

"This is not just a San Luis Obispo issue or even a California issue, but something that's a nationwide problem right now," Anderson said.

He added that the issue is not one of funding.

"There are salaries that are being offered that are generous and competitive," Anderson said. "That bottleneck goes back to increasing the availability of slots in veterinary schools and increasing the number of veterinary schools. That's not a short-term solution though, unfortunately, so I think this is a bigger challenge we're going to be seeing into the future." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at [email protected].


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