Facing a shortage
Animal shelters having trouble filling open veterinarian positions
South Florida’s animal shelters, under pressure to stop euthanizing cats and dogs, are facing a new challenge as they save growing numbers of animals: a shortage of veterinarians.
Palm Beach County has been unable to fill three vet positions at its Animal Care and Control, the main public shelter in West Palm Beach, for the past three years. Peggy Adams Animal Rescue League in West Palm Beach has two vets on staff but has been looking for a third for the past year.
Broward Animal Care and Adoption in Fort Lauderdale, which has two vets on staff, has openings for two more, one fulltime and one part-time.
The Humane Society in Broward also had trouble filling a position and decided to create a rotating system of vets who get paid on a per diem basis.
All are trying to adapt to a new reality: Many veterinarians are choosing private practice over the stresses and odd hours of work in a shelter, where they must perform as many as 30 spayneuters in a day, manage disease outbreaks on limited budgets and take care of society’s most abused and neglected animals.
“It’s a trend, and it’s a dire one,” said Dr. Julie Levy, University of Florida professor of shelter medicine. “Shelters trying to expand their services are being held back by not being able to recruit. The positions are staying vacant for prolonged periods.”
The effects of the shortage are trickling down to the public: Palm Beach County had to close its spay-neuter clinic for the month of December and is now only open on select days each month. In Broward, the Humane Society had to shutter its spay-neuter clinic six times last year and cancel days when it offers low-cost vaccines.
“Thirty years ago, there wasn’t as much of an effort to save the animals,” said Dr. Beth Keser, director of medical services at Peggy Adams. “Now, the number you rescue becomes a point of pride.”
In 2012, the Broward County Commission mandated that the county become a no-kill community, which meant that animals that were healthy or had treatable conditions were never killed, even when the shelter was full.
The mandate added pressures not only on vets but on the former shelter director, who an audit found started altering records to show progress toward the goal.
Still, the audit showed
Many veterinarians are choosing private practice over the stresses and odd hours of work in a shelter, where they must perform as many as 30 spay-neuters in a day as well as manage disease outbreaks on limited budgets. Broward has significantly reduced the number of dogs and cats killed at the facility. In 2017, there were 3,333 killed, down from 10,709 in
Animals continue to stream in, with 6,108 adopted in 2017, the most recent year available, up from 5,715 the previous year.
In 2014, Palm Beach County also launched a nokill plan, Countdown2Zero, to save every adoptable animal by 2024. The county has made progress: 62 percent of abandoned cats get adopted, up from 29 percent in 2014, and 87 percent of dogs find a home, up from
73 percent five years ago. The rest have to be euthanized due to their injuries or potential danger to the public.
Still, the shelter takes in
40 to 60 new cats and dogs a day, all of which have to get a thorough medical checkup by a vet who is also performing lots of other duties.
“The increased interest in getting to no-kill means tremendous pressure to spay and neuter as many as possible,” said Dr. Virginia Sayre, a Palm Beach County shelter veterinarian for 21 years.
While the stresses are high, starting salaries are
generous. Palm Beach County is offering newly graduated vets $80,000 a year plus benefits, while experienced vets can earn almost $100,000. In Broward, starting salaries are
$89,000, going as high as
$142,000 for the more experienced vets.
But the profession, although well-paying and prestigious, is facing a mental health crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in January that veterinarians have a suicide rate more than twice that of the general population.
The study offered several possible explanations, including vet schools’ selection of students with perfectionist personality traits, which are associated with anxiety and depression; easy access to lethal drugs, and a view of euthanasia as an acceptable method of ending suffering.
Vets say there are additional stressors, including debts from their educations (more than $143,000 on average), the pressure to save enormous numbers of animals, and the difficulty of dealing with emotional pet owners.
“These are good-paying jobs that vets are not sufficiently prepped for,” Levy said. “That’s what we’re trying to solve.”
Shelters are trying to come up with short- and
long-term solutions as the animals keep arriving. Dianne Sauve, Palm Beach County’s animal control director, said her shelter is looking at contracting with private vets for night-time emergency service as it searches for full-time employees.
Knowing the competition is fierce, she said she offered a job to a University of Florida veterinary student before she even graduated. The student finishes school in May and will start in June.
Until then, the shelter continues to limit its services, keeping its spay clinic open only on select days in February, a concern for animal advocates.
“Any plans to close or reduce spay-neuter clinic services at the county shelter will mean fewer dogs and cats will be timely sterilized,” said Acreage resident Debbie Lewis, who takes care of homeless cats in her neighborhood. “This will result in more unwanted births and owner surrenders and increased dog and cat shelter population and increased community cat population. This, in turn, will result in higher death rates and unnecessary continuing and prolonging of the tragic and costly cycle of pet overpopulation in our community.”
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Veterinarian Virginia Sayre neuters a 5 month old puppy at the Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control in West Palm Beach. The shelter has three openings for vets and has been unable to fill them.