Baltimore Sun

Veterinari­an shortage starts in the pipeline to veterinary school

- By Leah Fine Leah Fine ( will enter the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University this fall.

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.

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