Arizona experiencing veterinarian shortage crisis; push underway at state capitol to combat the problem

Currently, Arizona is experiencing a veterinarian crisis, with doctors saying that nearly every shelter or animal hospital is short on doctors.

Previously, we reported that there are a number of reasons behind the shortage.

"It's due to retirement of certain veterinarians, and then, there's only 33 veterinary schools in the U.S., so that's not much when you think about the new graduates who are graduating to replace that," said Dr. Carla Gartrell with Midwestern University, which is one of the 33 veterinary schools in the country. "We've also seen an increase in the pet population during the pandemic. Over the last two years, pet ownership has really increased, and so the need to service those animals is straining the profession."

Meanwhile, at least one rural vet is being forced to close their doors for good in just days as a result of the shortage.

Doctor in Page describes struggle

"When I first started in 1986. It wasn't that very busy. I mean, it kept me busy full time, but not running and often and just little by little," said Jerry Roundtree with Page Animal Hospital. "Over the years, over the three years that I was there, it got busier and busier."

Roundtree eventually needed a second vet to keep up with the growing demand before selling the practice a few years ago, but the hospital he built may come to end because there aren’t any doctors.

The vet who ran the hospital left, so Roundtree started flying back from his retirement home to keep the doors open, while they tried to hire a new one.

"We are just in a period of time where there are not enough veterinarians available, and we couldn't find him help, and he eventually chose to leave rather than just stay buried with the work," said Roundtree.

Roundtree cannot do it alone forever. Meanwhile, no applications are coming in.

"I was really distraught to hear that it might be closed because the people of Page are so isolated," said Roundtree. "135 miles to Flagstaff, 65 miles to Kanab, Utah. They would not have immediate veterinary care."

On March 15, officials with Page Animal Hospital announced that the hospital will close on April 29.

"We pray this will be a temporary closure and plan to re-open as soon as we are able to find a veterinarian," read a portion of the Facebook post.

Shortage also affecting Phoenix

Meanwhile, Phoenix is filled with problems as well.

"The Arizona Humane Society, on any average day, has about 500 animals under a roof, and about 500 animals in foster, and we're heading towards that kitten season is what really boosts that," said Dr. Steven Hansen, President and CEO of the Arizona Humane Society.

Dr. Hansen says they pay well and offer a lot, but finding veterinarians isn’t easy, even in a city the size of Phoenix.

"All veterinary practices in the State of Arizona, and most of them in the country, are struggling to remain fully staffed, so it becomes a very competitive environment for us to try and compete with regular veterinary practices, to retain and attract some high quality veterinary nurses or high quality veterinarians," said Dr. Hansen.

State government might take action soon

Ultimately, more doctors are needed, and fast. With that said, help might be coming from the State Capitol.

Currently, the State Legislature is considering a legislation that would offer up to $100,000 in reimbursement to graduates, as long as they stay in Arizona for four years, and work two years in either a rural area, a municipal, county, or non-profit shelter.

The legislation is a shot in the arm for a profession that has been burdened by debt. 

"We believe that that will be a huge incentive to retain those quality veterinarians, and allow us to run at full capacity," said Dr. Hansen.

Prospective veterinarian speak out

The proposed legislation is welcome news for prospective veterinarians, like Charity Mattingly.

Mattingly is a senior at West-MEC, ;earning what it takes to be a vet before heading off to college. She plans to stay in-state.

"Costs are cheaper, in-state and long-term," said Mattingly. "It would be a lot easier if I could get my bachelors as close to nothing as possible, since I then have four more years, that's about $300,000 to $500,000 added onto whatever my bachelor's degree will be there."

Currently, there are only a couple of options in-state. Midwestern University is one of them, and recently, University of Arizona started a new program that officials with Arizona Humane Society are hopefully will create new interest.

Mattingly says no matter what she chooses, it will mean debt for her.

Haley Adams, one of Mattingly's instructors at West-MEC, sys it is great teenagers can learn so much before starting college.

"If they were to graduate high school, go and attend – whether it's a veterinary technician or a veterinary program, they're going to accumulate some debt, but here, it really lets them know if this is the field for them," said Adams.

Adams says the industry needs more students. 

"The field is struggling,z" said Adams. "Pretty much every clinic that I'm aware of is looking to hire, whether it's at a reception role, an assistant, a technician or veterinary role. We're just not able to fill the seats of individuals that either leave for personal reasons, retirement. You know, they leave the field, and we don't have the individuals to fill those spots."

Debt holding some back, says prospective veterinarian

Mattingly  says she believes debt is a significant factor holding some future vets back.

"I've talked to a few other students in my program, and they aren't looking at going to a university or a four-year college because they just don't have the money for it, or the ability to get through it without putting themselves in debt that they're not sure if they can overcome," said Mattingly.

That is why the Arizona Humane Society, which is spearheading Senate Bill 1271, says eliminating $100,000 in debt could be so beneficial. Dr. Hansen says other states are keeping an eye on Arizona.

"So, they're actually watching Arizona very closely, because this legislation does have the potential to help those shelters, and they're hoping that maybe they can also introduce similar bills in their states that expand theirs," said Dr. Hansen.

It’s not just the big city shelters, but also for places like Page. Roundtree believes SB 1271 bill will eventually help, especially in addition to what they pay.

"The compensation package that we are offering a veterinarian who is willing to come to Page would match anywhere in the state, or anywhere in the country," said Roundtree.

If SB 1271 passes, it would only start for 2023 graduates, meaning it is a long ways off for an animal hospital that is out of doctors now.

"I'm optimistic. I just have a good feeling that something is going to work out. I don't know when that it's going to work out," said Roundtree.

Building up a new generation is key, doctor says

Dr. Gartrell says getting the younger generation involved is the key to building the profession back up.

"We have a healthcare summer camp for high school students, so that gives them exposure to the veterinary field, but all the heath care programs at Midwestern, so they're able to get hands on research and experience with the rigors of the heath care profession," said Dr. Gartrell.

The registration deadline to sign up for that camp is May 1.

Midwestern University Health Careers Institute for High School Students