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There are way more veterinarians than there is work for them to do, according to a recent survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association, as the nation's veterinary schools continue to crank out graduates.
A report from the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates the supply exceeds the demand by the equivalent of 11,250 full-time vets.
"There is a palpable tension," says Christopher Byers of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. "Right now, as a profession, we have so many veterinarians who are not being utilized to their full capacity. And now it is our job to figure out why that is and to come up with ways to rectify that."
He says vets don't have high unemployment, but the underemployment is significant. More than half say their practices are not at full capacity owing to a variety of factors, including that the sour economy has led many to forgo pet ownership as well as preventive care. "There are a lot of veterinarians having big red flags go up in their head, questioning why we have more opportunities for veterinary training when the demand isn't there," Byers says.
So now, the schools are in a bind — tuition money on one side, market realities on the other. Dan Givens, an interim dean at Auburn University, says veterinary medicine is a calling that attracts people no matter the economics. And, he says, given public health threats, too much talent in the workforce has upsides.
"If we had a new foreign animal disease come into the United States, the excess capacity would be a great blessing for us, because we would be prepared for this huge surge in need," Givens says.
One solution to the imbalance would be prosperity: When times are good, people have more pets and take better care of them. There are also federal loan programs encouraging vets to go into less glamorous specialties like livestock or to live in rural areas where there are still vet shortages.
Finally, hands-on "vet camps" like one for high school students at Auburn's College of Veterinary Medicine may be part of the solution. The camp reinforces some people's desire to be vets, but they can be too intense for some, and that can act like a filter.
"If you're interested in being a vet and you're young, it's not all cuddling animals," says high school freshman Lauren Allen. "[You] see them hurt, and ... you can see bones sticking out where they're not supposed to be."
Despite all of it, there are still lots of smart, passionate young people who want to be vets, and that's unlikely to change anytime soon. The veterinary workforce study predicts supply will exceed demand at least through 2025.
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