Last updated 3/28/2023 at 1:45pm
“My cat died in the veterinary hospital because I couldn’t get an appointment with his veterinarian when he first showed signs of being ill. It was too late, by the time we took him to an emergency clinic.”
Sound too familiar? It’s even more difficult raising pets in Borrego, where there’s no local veterinarian: and the nearest help for pets is an hour or two-hour drive away.
To mitigate the crisis-level shortage of veterinarians in California that is acutely affecting access to care for the most vulnerable companion animals including those in shelters, Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris has introduced AB 1237, the California Public Interest Veterinary Debt Relief Act. AB 1237 is co-sponsored by San Diego Humane Society and San Francisco SPCA.
AB 1237 aims to attract existing veterinarians to practice where demand is greatest in California, by providing state and private funding to apply toward their school loans. The new state program will offer payments of up to $150,000 in educational debt relief to licensed California veterinarians that agree to work for a California animal shelter or in underserved communities for at least five years.
With private practice veterinarians already struggling to keep up with demand – resulting in weeks-to months-long waits for appointments – the supply of reduced rate veterinary services is now nearly non-existent. California shelters caring for our state’s most vulnerable pets have been hit equally hard and struggle to provide or access veterinary care for their animals.
The pandemic coupled with consolidation of veterinary clinics by national chains has exacerbated the shortage of affordable care.
In San Diego County, many pet owners have been shocked to find that when an emergency occurs with their pet, very few clinics offer 24-hour service and those that do, often have waits of 6 – 10 hours or more – a situation that can cost pets’ lives. Residents in rural or mountain areas may have to drive one to two hours to seek emergency veterinary care, and even routine care costs have become prohibitively high for many pet owners.
“The veterinary shortage is one of the most serious challenges we face today in animal welfare. We have to take action to attract more veterinarians to practice in California, especially in shelters,” said Dr. Gary Weitzman, president and CEO, San Diego Humane Society. “We also have to think about what this veterinary shortage means for vulnerable pets and their owners throughout the state.”
Petrie-Norris added, “With veterinary school debt averaging nearly $200,000, it’s no wonder we have a vet shortag. It’s cruel to allow pets to suffer prolonged illnesses – by alleviating the stress of education debt, we can increase veterinary care access for the nearly 350,000 California shelter animals who are waiting for lifesaving treatment.”
“We know that hundreds of thousands of animals in California shelters don’t have access to adequate veterinary care,” said Dr. Jennifer Scarlett, CEO of the SF SPCA. “Inequitable access to veterinary care is the greatest threat to companion animal welfare today. This debt relief legislation would help California animals get the care they need and deserve.”
Top three reasons why the California Public Interest Veterinary Debt Relief Act is needed:
Veterinarians have the second highest monthly debt-to-income ratio among graduate degree holders. According to an American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) survey in 2020, the average veterinary school debt was $188,853. The AVMA reports that educational debt for veterinary graduates is growing by nearly $6000 each year. The debt load for these graduating vets makes it next to impossible for them to choose to practice in the shelters or community service.
A lack of access to basic care is leading to an increased length of stay for animals in shelters across the state. A recent survey(link is external) of California animal shelters revealed that less than half can consistently provide treatment for non-routine illness or injury that requires a veterinarian’s assessment, and 40% of shelter respondents are unable to consistently perform lifesaving – and legally required – spay/neuter surgeries.
60% of open shelter veterinary positions remain vacant due to a lack of candidates. Of 111 survey respondents(link is external), 73 have full-time veterinary positions open, and 82 have full-time registered veterinary technician positions open.