Veterinary shortages reach North Central Florida

When Madeline O’Sullivan, 21, got Alfie – an 11-month-old black and white border collie – in July, she was able to get veterinary services at a lower cost because her uncle owns a veterinary clinic.

O’Sullivan had his furry friend neutered for free, saving him considerable money. But Alfie and her owner are a rare case. A typical pet owner can spend hundreds of dollars a year on scheduled vet visits.

These increased costs are due in part to a statewide vet shortage that has reached North Central Florida. Area shelters and clinics are rare or short-staffed.

If it weren’t for her uncle, O’Sullivan said she worries 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 a more stable financial situation, but are still aware of the issues.

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, an animal adoption nonprofit.

Although the cost of the tattoo artist’s first visit to the vet was waived, Veselý still believes that pet owners are in a difficult situation when it comes to veterinary care, especially in emergencies.

“That would be pretty worrisome if it was like an emergency where Tater would need surgery,” Veselý said. “I think most pet owners, depending on how much it would be, would pretty much pay the cost.”

To help with the shortage, organizations like the Humane Society of North Central Florida, located at 4205 NW 6th St. in Gainesville, provide resources for animals and owners. The facility has three specialists on call to provide medical care to dogs, cats and other small animals.

Play time: Madeline O’Sullivan, 21, prepares to throw a frisbee to her dog Alfie during a visit to the park. (Jose Tovar/WUFT News)

These specialists include a medical director, a surgeon and a shelter veterinarian. Their responsibilities include caring for the animals, running low-cost operations, and overseeing training and inventory management.

At the Humane Society of North Central Florida, veterinarians perform about 25 spay and neuter surgeries a day, or about 5,000 a year. But the Humane Society is a rare example of a working shelter. In other rural counties, such as Dixie, Hamilton and Taylor, pet owners travel several miles to find adequate treatment.

“We’re very fortunate to be able to afford three vets,” said Margot DeConna, director of development at the Humane Society of North Central Florida. “There are very few rescues and shelters that can say the same.”

DeConna said she believes veterinarians, both small and farm animals, are hard to come by.

Employees treat animals, perform low-cost surgeries and oversee training and inventory management at the Humane Society of North Central Florida. (Jose Tovar/WUFT News)

One reason for the shortage is operating costs: Veterinary clinics have to cover expenses such as medical supplies, equipment, staff and insurance — and costs usually exceed profits, she said.

As veterinarians struggle to balance their finances with higher costs, pet owners are becoming increasingly impatient. Customers are unwilling to pay these prices and take out their frustration on employees. A taxing work environment discourages practices from offering their services, DeConna said.

During the pandemic, many resources used in veterinary medicine were allocated to human care. This shift led to shortages of certain medical supplies, such as oxygen and anesthesia, leading to a significant drop in surgeries.

Clinics and shelters were unable to carry out their usual procedures, contributing to a spike in overpopulation, disease outbreaks and increased euthanasia. If animals were not vaccinated or spayed/neutered, disease and over-reproduction were more likely to spread.

Another problem DeConna found was the high cost of training veterinarians.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterinarians must complete a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree, which typically takes four years to complete at an accredited college of veterinary medicine.

In Need of Surgery: A shortage of veterinarians has led to a decline in spaying and neutering of small animals. (Jose Tovar/WUFT News)

To join the workforce, potential veterinarians must also pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Exam, a national requirement, and other state licensing exams.

Employment of vets is projected to grow by 19% between 2021 and 2031 – or around 16,800 new jobs, according to the Statistics Office.. The average growth rate of all occupations during this period is 5%.

DeConna suggested creating a public relations campaign that would educate pet owners to be compassionate toward veterinarians and support veterinary schools to increase workforces and expand resources.

“I think helping the public, generally understand how difficult these jobs are, could be helpful,” DeConna said.

Without Care: North Central Florida is feeling the effects of a national vet shortage. The shortage is a result of high costs, lack of inventory and little appreciation. (Jose Tovar/WUFT News)

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