veterinarian tired

Pet Care in Crisis? Understanding Veterinary and Economic Challenges

April 22, 2024 Frank Niles, Ph.D.

The veterinary industry is undergoing major changes that impact pets and their owners. Since the COVID pandemic, hospitals have experienced overwhelming caseloads, and have struggled to maintain adequate staffing between health concerns and burnout, struggled to maintain adequate staffing. Yet, part of this landscape is changing.

While veterinary practice revenue increased an average of 5.7% between August 2021 and August 2023, the number of client visits fell by 2.7%.1 David Sprinkle shared data from the Packaged Fact’s first annual “State of the Pet Market” webinar for 2024 that between 2018 to 2023, the number of veterinary customers fell 9.5%.2 The cost of care is rising in our inflationary economy, so understandably, pet owners are becoming increasingly more sensitive to financial demands.  In a survey conducted by the Cleveland Research Company looking at price sensitivity among pet owners, there was a rise in the percentage of respondents who strongly agreed that higher prices impacted how quickly they take their pet to the pet and intend to go to the veterinarian less to save money.3 

Are economic challenges deterring pet ownership?

Between 2016 and 2022, the number of pet dogs in the United States grew from 76.8 million to somewhere between 86.2-90.4 million.1 Additionally, the number of households with dogs grew from 38% to 45%. However, David Sprinkle’s recent data showed that between 2018 - 2023, the number of U.S. households grew by 3.8%, but the number of dog/cat households fell by 2.1%.2 The number of pet households declined between 2019 and 2023 for all generations of pet owners. Dog-owning households are down while cat-owning households are up. While people still love pets and want to make them part of their lives their dollar is not stretching as far, and people are having to make tough choices.

While veterinary visits might be declining in many hospitals, inadequate staffing in veterinary clinics and mental health concerns remain issues that people are addressing. One solution to address staffing is to increase the number of trained veterinarians in the workforce. The American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) published in a March 2024 report an acknowledgement of the veterinary shortage stating that 20-30% of veterinarians every year have expressed a desire to work fewer hours, and the AAVMC proposes that it would require 4,500 to 6,000 additional veterinarians to fully meet the needs.4 Multiple veterinary schools have opened in the past few years or have announced intentions to do so. One of the most recent announcements made in February 2024 was about Murray State University in Kentucky, where the state House passed a bill allowing the university to create Kentucky's first school of veterinary medicine.5 

Adding veterinary professionals is only one part of the solution. A residual challenge for the veterinary profession is retaining clinic employees. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) published a survey of nearly 15,000 veterinary individuals, finding a 23% turnover rate among veterinary team members.5 When surveyed, 30% of individuals in clinical practice plan to change practices or leave the clinic setting entirely within the next year. Of those surveyed, 2,000 had already left clinical practice. Once they leave clinical practice, only 10% say they would ever consider returning.

The AAHA study found that by far, the number one reason for wanting to leave veterinary clinics was the lack of fair compensation, but other top reasons included lack of appreciation for work and career development. In the 2023 Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study IV that surveyed 4,600 veterinarians, an interesting finding was that while 74% of veterinarians reported feeling extremely satisfied with their career and when asked how satisfied they think other veterinarians are, they estimated only 43%.6 So, the perception of dissatisfaction among veterinarians might be overly negative. However, veterinarians older than 55 years old were more likely to report feeling fulfilled, likely because they were the ones without significant student loan debt. The burnout scores improved since Merck’s previous study, and while veterinarians are not worse off than the general population in terms of burnout, they do have higher levels of exhaustion. 

The satisfaction rates among veterinarians in the Merck study do not seem to line up with AAHA's research until you look at the data on the rest of the veterinary team. When Merck’s researchers surveyed veterinary technicians, veterinary assistants, and receptionists, they saw lower job satisfaction compared to the general population. A shocking 20.5% reported suffering from serious psychological distress. Contributions to this included financial stress, having to work multiple jobs, and 60% carrying credit card debt.

Both AAHA and the Merck study investigated job characteristics that encourage employee retention and well-being, suggesting improvements like fair pay, positive clinic culture, access to financial resources, and healthy coping methods. Another tip they found was avoiding excess social media. A good tip for everyone.

Economic inflation, retaining employees, and overall well-being are not challenges exclusively experienced in the veterinary industry. However, we can also see positive changes, such as the rapid growth of technology to support animal health care, including in-home diagnostics, AI radiography readings, and early cancer detection. These advancements are great for advancing pet health, but financial concerns may prevent pet families from taking their pets to get this care.

These veterinary challenges, both positive and negative, impact our pets and their families, especially when it comes to access to care. Pet owners and pet industry professionals should support veterinary professionals and work together towards the best outcome for pets. 


  1. Scott Nolen. November 28, 2023. AVMA News.
  2. David Sprinkle. March 22, 2024. Fountain Report. Pg 4.
  3. Fox News. February 16, 2024. Murray State and Eastern Kentucky get KY House approval for new veterinary, medical programs.
  4. AAVM Statement on U.S. Veterinary Workforce. March 2024.
  5. Kristen Green Seymour. Jan 2024. AAHA. How Do We Keep Good People in Clinical Practice?
  6. Merck Animal Health. Jan 15, 2024. Merck Animal Health’s Fourth Veterinary Wellbeing Study Indicates Progress in Addressing Mental Health Challenges Among Veterinary Teams.

About the author: Frank Niles, Ph.D. is Principal Business Psychologist at BSM Partners where he leads the firm’s business transformation practice. A trusted advisor to leaders and organizations around the world, he works with a broad portfolio of clients, ranging from start-ups to Fortune 50 Companies. Frank is regularly featured or quoted in the media, having appeared in Inc, Fast Company, CNN, NBC, NPR, and many more media outlets. In his free time, he climbs mountains.

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