For most of us, our furry friends play a pivotal role in our lives. Whether you have a cuddly lap dog or a feisty cat, your pet is likely a bright spot in your day-to-day routine. To keep our pets happy and healthy, routine visits with a veterinarian are a must.

Of course, doctor appointments are rarely fun, even for humans. But across species, preventive care in the form of regular checkups and vaccines can save time, money and unnecessary pain in the long run.

But your pet’s health can easily be put on the back-burner if you have trouble finding them a veterinarian, a problem more people are encountering as of late. Whether you’re new to an area and trying to establish yourself and your pet(s) as regular patients or you have an emergency, vet appointments are becoming harder and harder to secure.

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Utah’s veterinary landscape

The nationwide vet shortage is a predicament The Atlantic called “The Great Veterinary Shortage.”

Due to the dwindling number of veterinarians nationwide, pet owners are increasingly encountering short-staffed vet offices, whose books are scheduled out weeks, or even months, in advance.

To take the temperature on the vet industry’s condition on a local scale, the Deseret News reached out to Hunter Animal Hospital in West Valley City, Utah. Leesa Kratzer, the hospital’s manager, has been with the animal hospital for 13 years in various roles — if she hasn’t seen it all, she’s seen close to it, including staff shortages.

“We went from four doctors to two this year,” Kratzer said in an interview with the Deseret News. “But we have the most amazing doctors and so we have been able to increase our appointments because they are seeing double appointments.”

Dr. Mike Van Zomeren checks a dog with the help of Taylor Piper at Hunter Animal Hospital in West Valley City on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022.
Dr. Mike Van Zomeren checks a dog with the help of Taylor Piper at Hunter Animal Hospital in West Valley City on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Fortunately, the staffing situation at Hunter Animal Hospital isn’t as dire as it is in other parts of the country, and perhaps even other parts of Utah. The clinic just welcomed back one of their veterinarians from maternity leave, who is available to see patients part-time. They also recently hired on a soon-to-be-graduate who will start at the hospital this coming June.

Kratzer explained the significance of hiring experienced staff, given the field’s desperate need for professionals. “It’s really exciting to be able to hire a new grad right now because all of the hospitals right now in the valley are hiring,” she said.

Other students that want to pursue veterinary medicine can now fully study the field in Utah. Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature granted funding to Utah’s first-ever College of Veterinary Medicine at Utah State University, reported.

“Utah Veterinary Medical Association members are excited about legislators having funded the new school and look forward to seeing how it develops because it will have an important impact on veterinary medicine in the state,” Dr. Jane Kelly, president of Utah Veterinary Medical Association, said in a statement.

COVID-19’s impact on veterinary medicine

Looking back, the field of veterinary medicine has never been a stranger to staffing shortages, but the events of the last couple of years — namely the COVID-19 pandemic — culminated in a nationwide veterinarian exodus.

There is no one answer as to why veterinarians are leaving the profession in droves, but the effects of the pandemic undoubtedly made their way into the field. According to Susan Sholtis, president of treatment provider PetIQ, “about 1 in 4 vets are quitting annually industrywide,” Axios reported.

Jamie Weiss holds a dog still as TyLynn Dille shaves it’s paw as they prep it for surgery at Hunter Animal Hospital in West Valley City on Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Roughly 33% of Americans adopted pets during the first several months of the pandemic and the number of monthly appointments at vet clinics shot up exponentially, per Axios.

The wave of demand for appointments hit Utah vet clinics, as well. “We did notice that when the pandemic hit, after everybody got into a normal routine, we did see an increase in appointments,” Kratzer said. “The demand was definitely there.”

Because so many Americans were suddenly spending a lot of time at home with their animals, they began noticing ailments or conditions with their pets that they hadn’t noticed before, and began scheduling appointments, Kratzer explained.

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The increase of appointments put a strain on many veterinary staff as the demand for care outgrew the supply of professionals. The result of the strain? Burnout — like so many other professions mid-pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted the profession’s lack of flexibility at times.

Over 50% of the veterinary workforce is comprised of females, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. When the pandemic changed the landscape of veterinary medicine, “mothers without child care quit or switched to more flexible remote work,” The Atlantic reported. Additionally, the already precarious staff numbers coupled with the increased demand for appointments resulted in many opting for retirement.

Taking charge of your pet’s health

Aside from proactively scheduling future checkups, there are ways to take part in preventative health care for your pet without requiring too much time — or breaking the bank. These measures may keep you from scrambling to find a last-minute vet appointment in the future.

“Being aware and making sure you do pay attention to your pet on a daily basis so that you can notice anything that’s out of the norm” is the first step in managing your pet’s health before emergencies happen, according to Kratzer. “Just like you would your children.”

Regular annual appointments: A common question is, “how often should I be taking my pet to the vet?” Once a year, Kratzer says, for a typical, healthy pet. Given staff shortages, it wouldn’t hurt to plan ahead and preschedule appointments with your vet’s office.

Vaccinations: Whether you have a regular vet or you utilize low-cost clinics like The Humane Society, vaccinations are crucial to your pet’s health. The type and frequency of vaccines vary from species to species and can depend on age, health and more. If you’re unsure about your pet’s vaccination status or where to start, you can contact your veterinarian or reach out to local animal non-profits for resources.

Diet and exercise: Another way to ensure your pet lives a longer, happier life is to feed them the proper amount of food and provide them with exercise and activity everyday.

“Owners should choose a balanced, proven diet and then feed it in measured amounts that maintain a leaner-than-average body weight,” said Kate Creevy, the lead veterinary officer for the University of Washington’s Dog Aging Project, CNBC reported. “And they should exercise their dogs daily, which is also a good way for folks to exercise themselves.”

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