Burnout fuels shortage in veterinary support positions, animal clinics working to still provide care

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INDIANAPOLIS — The pet care industry is far from lacking when it comes to a need for their services.

“We definitely saw a huge increase in the amount of animals that were adopted, or purchased, or rescued during the pandemic because everybody wanted some companionship,” said Dr. Kurt Phillips, CEO and founder of City Way Animal Clinics, Inc.

Phillips, who is behind the clinic’s five locations throughout the city, says business has grown tremendously since the pandemic. That’s by about five or six percent more than expected.

While the need is there, help is hard to come by. That’s as animal clinics across the country are battling shortages in veterinary support staff.

Right now, Phillips says they’re hiring for several positions including customer service, veterinary techs and veterinary assistants. He says they’re operating at about a 1:5 ratio for doctors to support staff. The goal is to be at 1:6.

“In order to get to my 1:6 ratio, I probably need five or six more support staff members today,” he said. “If I could get the opportunity to hire two more veterinarians, well then, I need 12 more people, and I know that I could support at least two more veterinarians on our team right now.”

While the numbers look good on paper, Phillips says it’s difficult to fill the positions. They’re continuing to host interviews, but candidates aren’t showing up.

“Many of them will go through the process, they’ll ghost us or they won’t come to their initial interview on Zoom,” he said. “Many of them are being asked to pick a Zoom time and date to meet with my chief operating officer virtually, and honestly, about 25 percent of those candidates actually show up to the first interview. So I don’t know what’s happening there.”

Along with no show interviews, Phillips says there’s more competition when it comes to the amount of practices, preference of work and pay.

For example, Phillips says the average wage, for a veterinary assistant (non-registered, non-nurse), is $14 an hour across the U.S.

The general median, for that position at City Way Animal Clinics, ranges from about $12 – $17 depending on experience level. While Phillips feels comfortable in knowing they offer the standard, and then some, in pay, he says it’s hard to compete when other industries offer more.

“You can go work at Amazon tomorrow for $15 an hour, and so anything less than that is a challenge to keep those people employed in your facilities,” said Phillips.

To help retain and attract help, Phillips says his clinics do offer pay incentives like salary appraisals, cost of living advancements and opportunities to grow into higher positions.

Despite the incentives though, he says people are simply burnt out on the profession, causing people to leave the industry to pursue different career paths.

So what does limited staff mean for pet owners? Simply put, be prepared for fewer daily appointment slots, and maybe longer wait times to get your pet in the office.

“We do a very specific amount of anesthesia procedures per day so that we can adequately staff for recovery, for every single one of those patients,” said Phillips. “So that might mean that you can’t get your dog in for a procedure that’s extracting a bad tooth for a week or two, and that’s no fun.”

“Spay, neuters, routine teeth cleanings, even vaccinations, yearly physical exams just to talk about the health of your pet and update their vaccinations, we try to book those out a little further so that we can find some margin in our lives for the person, who woke up that morning and their dog was limping,” he added.

To help make room for emergency, same-day appointments, Phillips says their doctors have a couple of hours blocked off each day to cater strictly to those needs.

When talking about the state of the industry and its future, Phillips says people need to realize the value in offering pet care services, which allows vets to charge the proper amount, and in turn, help retain more staff.

“Our profession, our industry as a whole, has been very conservative, very traditional about raising prices to the level that we need to take in so that we can pay our support staff the right amount so that we can get good and qualified candidates to deliver the right advice, prescribe the right medications, and do the procedure and recover the pets in the right way,” said Phillips, “and when you’re talking about $12 an hour, I don’t know anybody in a doctor’s office that’s getting paid that little.”

“If we can get more people to agree to veterinary pet insurance, we, as a profession, will be able to do more for patients, charge the right amount and then we’ll be able to pay our support staff,” he added.

Phillips says he’s hopeful for the future and for more graduates to come out of veterinary medicine programs. Currently, Phillips says Purdue University’s School of Veterinary Medicine is its biggest driver for potential candidates, followed by Indiana Business College.

However, for some positions, Phillips says experience isn’t necessarily required to be considered.

“They can be educated on the job,” he said. “We can train them on how to be assistants to registered veterinary technicians, which could also be considered veterinary nurses.”

If you’re interested in learning more about positions at any of the five City Way Animal Clinics, visit their website to apply.

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