Is the veterinarian shortage real or regional?

Mentoring and partnering with farm animal practices can increase vet student confidence

Individual veterinary practice owners often struggle to find an associate to help with the caseload.

There was a time when a veterinary help-wanted ad, even for a large-animal practice, would receive a healthy number of applications. 

Not anymore. 

A perceived global shortage of veterinarians is creating an urban-rural, companion-large animal bidding war for salary, incentives and work-life balance to attract applicants. 

Why it matters: Rural and large animal practices are finding it hard to compete for applicants, which has implications for the quality of care they can offer. 

“The global debate continues. Are there too few students choosing food animal medicine? Or are there enough, but they’re just not choosing to work in certain areas, just like family doctors might choose not to work in certain areas? I think it’s a combination of both,” says Dr. Jeff Wichtel, dean of the Ontario Veterinary College. 

Another contributing factor, Wichtel said, is underestimation of spending on pets five to 10 years ago when making workforce predictions. 

“We’ve been caught flat-footed,” he said. “All of the traditional problems of getting veterinarians to locate in underserved parts of our province have now been compounded by this worldwide shortage of veterinarians and technicians.”

Reba Pastink (left) and Dr. Swackhammer attending to a herd of dairy cows before beginning pregnancy checks. photo: Diana Martin

Dr. Chris Doherty, an economic analyst for the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association, in January 2020 published an article in The Canadian Veterinary Journal that assessed the veterinary shortage. 

Doherty referenced Ontario survey data that indicated the shortage is regional, with veterinarian help-wanted advertisements in Toronto receiving a median of four applicants per position, three within the greater Toronto area and two immediately outside of those areas. 

Facilities in rural parts of Ontario and Northern Ontario typically receive no applicants, said the article.

“We do have a lot of students out of our 120 that are interested in rural practice, and they make that clear by the choices they have made,” Wichtel said. “We also have a pretty significant or similar number who choose to work in a mixed animal or food animal practice when they graduate.”

Companion or mixed practices in urban or near-urban centres can be more attractive to graduating veterinarians because they want a work-life balance.

“There has been a massive trend to both increase pet ownership and also increased spending on one’s pets,” said Wichtel, “which has resulted in a huge demand for veterinarians in urban practice, and consequently salaries for veterinarians in urban practice have jumped up significantly in the last two or three years.”

The 2019 Provincial Surveys of Compensation and Benefits for Associate Veterinarians suggests some Canadian veterinary practices offer higher wages to address the increased competition.

“The national weighted average annual compensation for full-time associates climbed by six per cent to $89,980, well above the rate of inflation,” said Doherty. 

If indicators can be taken from Ontario’s May and June veterinarian ads, it could be tough for large-animal and rural practices to compete with a six-digit starting salary, signing bonuses of $5,000 to $50,000, performance incentives, mentoring, state-of-the-art facilities, flexible hours and work-life balance offered by urban and near-urban practices. 

Data from the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association showed a sharp rise in associate veterinarian ads on its website and the Canadian Veterinarian Journal from 52 a month at the beginning of 2016 to a record high of 115 in March 2019, said Doherty.

Some suggested the increased demand reflects the desire of associate veterinarians to work part-time hours, forcing veterinary practices to hire two associates where only one was necessary before. 

Doherty said the data doesn’t support this. From 2009 to 2019, there was a 4.3 per cent increase in the median annual hours worked by a full-time associate veterinarian in Canada. 

Nova Scotia saw the most significant jump (14.3 per cent) in hours (1,645 hours up to 1,880). Ontario recorded a 5.9 per cent jump and British Columbia and New Brunswick saw a decline in hours by 1.2 per cent and 4.7 per cent, respectively. 

“Although many associate veterinarians reduce their hours as they grow in experience, newer graduates continue to work a greater number of hours,” Doherty wrote. 

“In fact, the national weighted average number of hours worked annually for full-time associate veterinarians has climbed from 1,703 in 2009 to 1,777 in 2019.”

While veterinary programs worldwide consider graduating more practitioners to address the situation, Doherty noted that will still take four to five years to yield results. 

In 2015 veterinary help-wanted ads were at their lowest levels. 

Baby boomers and millennials could be contributing to the demand, given they are in their prime pet-owning years, said Doherty, adding a significant percentage will age out of pet ownership in the next eight years. 

“By 2029, nearly one in four (24 per cent) of Canadians will be over 65 years of age, compared to 18 per cent today,” Doherty wrote. “The impact of these shifting demographics needs to be considered before jumping to change the supply of veterinarians.”

All of this is little comfort to individual veterinary practice owners who are struggling to find an associate to help with the caseload, said Doherty.

Diana Martin is a reporter with Farmtario. Her article appeared in the July 12, 2021 issue.

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