When he was 7, Michael Weiss put a popsicle stick splint on a limping puppy. After that success, he recalled, “All I wanted to do was become an animal doctor.” While in veterinary school at the University of Missouri, Weiss developed a passion for exotic animals after he volunteered to rehabilitate injured birds of prey.

Decades later, Weiss, vet-owner of the high-tech 2nd Street Animal Hospital in Northern Liberties, keeps his patients near. His right arm sports tattoos of the creatures he said he “saves”: a cat, an Australian shepherd representing dogs, an African gray parrot as a stand-in for birds, and a snake.

Weiss picked an occupation in which ending up on an unemployment line is extremely unlikely. Veterinarians and associated professionals are in short supply. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the major association for Doctors of Veterinary Medicine, or DVMs, and their staffers, between January 2019 and May 2021, there were 18 positions open for every veterinarian seeking a job, six for every technician and assistant, and 12 for related positions.

“We have four vets. We could have seven to eight, but we can’t do that because I can’t hire enough support staff,” said Weiss, who also owns a suburban practice in Washington Township, N.J.

The labor shortage became particularly intense when vet appointments skyrocketed during the pandemic partially because home-bound people rushed to adopt animal companions. Newly acquired pets increased animal medical office visits by more than 50%, the AVMA estimated. Weiss’ revenue jumped by 50% to 90%, depending on the month, he said.

» READ MORE: Pet ownership surged during COVID-19. Veterinarians are exhausted

But even if the client base for veterinary medicine eventually falls to pre-pandemic levels, staffers will remain in high demand. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that jobs for veterinarians will grow 16% between 2019 and 2029. That same growth rate is predicted for the veterinary technicians and technologists who perform medical tests on animals. This rate is “much faster than the average for all occupations,” the BLS said.

High cost of working with animals

What’s driving this shortage of skilled workers? It’s not a lack of educational opportunities. There are enough students in the more than 50 four-year, post-graduate veterinary medical schools certified by the AVMA, and sufficient candidates in certified vet tech programs, said Kaye Harnish, immediate past president of the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association (PVMA). “The problem is that so many individuals leave the profession.”

Part of the reason is finances. A recent vet school graduate who works in a companion-animal practice in Pennsylvania can expect to earn, on average, about $110,336 a year, according to the AVMA. However, paying for the education to get that starting salary can be a challenge.

“Graduates who are 15 years or less out of veterinary school are typically saddled with $150,000 to $250,000 in student debt, and many have much greater amounts,” said Karen Felsted, a Dallas-based management consultant for veterinary practices.

The high debt-to-income ratio has caused many would-be vets to switch careers, sometimes entering the more lucrative medical field, where an average physician or surgeon makes at least $208,000 a year, according to the BLS.

Students can lower expenses by paying in-state tuition or going to a state university. At the University of Pennsylvania, one of only four private vet schools in the country, four years of veterinary school cost an average of $360,816 for a Pennsylvania resident and $406,612 for a non-resident, according to the AVMA. Many public universities charge less.

At the state-run Cornell vet school, for instance, New York state residents pay $256,572 for their education, while non-residents clock in at $338,122.

The comparatively low income of vets may be one reason that men are not getting trained in the same numbers as women. Right now, women make up 80% of enrollment at veterinary students, and are a majority of practitioners. On the other hand, “practice owners are still more likely to be men than women,” Felsted noted.

For animal lovers, one way to get around the huge cost of post-college veterinary training is to go to a two-year or four-year post-high school program to become certified as a vet technician or technologist. The average salary for those fields in Pennsylvania is $37,050, according to the BLS. And although Penn is the only veterinary medical school in the tri-state area, there are 11 tech programs certified by the American Veterinary Medical Association in Pennsylvania alone.

Money isn’t the only cost in veterinary medicine; there is also an emotional toll.

One of the key factors in staff burnout is interaction with clients, the two-legged kind, according to a pre-pandemic survey by HRH Health Research & Analytics. “People often don’t realize how sophisticated veterinary medicine has become and how much vet care will cost,” said Felsted.

Some clients become irate when presented with a potential bill. Weiss believes that pandemic restrictions brought out the worst in some people. “Clients are used to feeling relaxed with their pets in an examining room. Making them wait outside the building while their animals are treated inside resulted in some really bad behavior,” he said.

Compassion fatigue is another factor affecting the mental health of veterinary staff. “There’s a lot of death — that gets hard,” Weiss said. Clients may forgo life-saving treatments due to the expense. Vets may euthanize animals with curable conditions.

“An eight-year-old dog can come in that I’ve treated since he was a puppy. He then sits on the table and licks my hand, not knowing that I’m about to euthanize him,” said Weiss. Like many other vets, Weiss bent pandemic quarantine procedures by letting owners be with their pets when they died.

The debt, unhappy clients, and deaths, plus access to lethal drugs, have led to a surprisingly large suicide rate among vets — 3.5 times higher than average for female vets and 2.1 times for men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A group called Not One More Vet, established in 2014, offers peer-to-peer support for troubled veterinary professionals and provides grants to help them manage their finances.

The future of veterinary practices

Traditionally, vet practices were run by one person with a few staffers in a building the owner held title to. These buildings were often the vets’ houses, and patients might walk through a laundry room to reach the intake desk.

But, said Felsted, “veterinary work will look really different in the future.” Already, vets are constructing or retro-fitting sleek buildings, such as Weiss’ modernist quarters in Northern Liberties, and hiring several veterinarians and other staffers. To remain competitive, they must improve their efficiency and acquire cutting-edge technology.

Corporate ownership, virtually nonexistent 20 years ago, now accounts for about a quarter of practices and is rising, though there may develop a plateau as the supply of suitable offices runs out.

Mars, of candy bar fame, owns Banfield Pet Hospital, the country’s largest chain, with more than 1,000 animal hospitals in the 50 states and Puerto Rico. In the Philadelphia area, almost all Banfield offices are located within PetSmart stores.

There are several benefits to corporate ownership. For a vet who sells but stays on as a partner, “all the management stuff is taken over by the corporation. You save on ordering because products are bought in bulk. And there are better benefits for employees,” said Weiss, who said that seven companies have approached him about the possibility of selling.

On the down side, a practice may lose its uniqueness when it is required to conform to a corporate template generated 3,000 miles away. And, right or wrong, many vets believe that investor-owned businesses charge higher prices.

One trend catching on rapidly is “fear-free” practices. Additional training and continuing education help a clinician “pay special attention to the emotional state of animals,” explained Weiss, who has two certified veterinarians on staff. “There are procedures and medications to reduce anxiety. You can’t have a picture of a dog in a cat room. Lots more practices are doing fear-free. It’s what people want.”

Younger clients are driving changes in the way vet practices communicate. Over three-quarters of 20- to 38-year-olds own a pet, a higher percentage than any other cohort, according to YPulse, which reports marketing data on young people. Among generations, 16% of Gen Z’ers and 13% of millennials obtained pets during the pandemic, compared with just 3% of baby boomers, according to a survey by the American Pet Products Association.

“Millennial and gen-Z clients are more involved with their pets and want to talk more than other ones,” Weiss said. “In my New Jersey practice, these older clients are just in and out of the office.”

A marketing study commissioned by Merck Animal Health found that younger clients spent 44% more time researching their options than the older ones, and were twice as likely to call their vet with questions.

“Young people are used to touching their cell phone when they have a question,” Weiss said. The Merck study warned vets: “If you’re going to be where your clients are, you need to make a firm commitment to a robust and varied online presence.”

Weiss checks all the boxes for a veterinarian who can glide easily into the future. He has a compelling and frequently updated website, maintains a user-friendly patient portal, advertises on social media, responds to bad reviews on places like Yelp, and texts his clients. Yet what gets him up in the morning is what he experienced at 7 years old: a love of saving animals.

The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.