In a given year, San Francisco Animal Care and Control (SFACC) will help anywhere from 6,000-9,000 animals. In 2021 and 2022, 1,974 dogs, 2,232 cats and 2,485 other creatures ranging from giant bunnies to domestic pigeons hopped through ACC’s doors.
It’s a tall order. SFACC is the city’s sole municipal shelter—and it runs the entire operation with just two veterinarians.
“Not all the animals that come into the shelter are going to be adoptable, and many of them are coming in with a lot of serious health problems already,” said Dr. Shari O’Neill, chief shelter veterinarian at SFACC. “There is a lot of euthanasia, there are a lot of [treatments] that you just can't do because you're stuck resource wise, and that can wear on you over time.”
By O’Neill’s estimate, SFACC is operating with far fewer doctors and technicians than is actually needed to meet the city’s growing demand for animal care services. Facing nonstop hours, minimal support during procedures and operations, and intense burnout, many vets and vet techs are now choosing to leave the profession altogether.
But SFACC’s staffing problems are not unique, nor does it just affect shelter doctors and technicians. A new survey by the SF Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals indicates that California is in the midst of a severe veterinarian shortage, which has left hundreds of thousands of animals without adequate care across the state.
Though longtime vets say the shortage is nothing new, pandemic conditions and shelter overcrowding have only made matters worse: animal euthanasia is rising across the state, as adoptable pets are unable to get access to basic veterinary care and fall sick with preventable diseases and illnesses.
More than half of open veterinarian positions are now unfilled in California, according to the SPCA survey. Municipal shelters like SFACC have only a handful of technicians for thousands of animals in need, while private practices report staff vacancies that have been unfilled for years—and not for a lack of trying. The SPCA survey found that most shelters and practices are understaffed not because of budget restraints, but because they simply cannot find candidates.
“We have been attempting to hire doctors for the last three years, and one just provided their resignation and is leaving the field altogether,” said Tricia Mallory, chief of operations at Irving Pet Hospital. “Burnout, compassion fatigue, mental well-being, work-life balance, all of these things matter to the doctors that go into [veterinary medicine].”
With overcrowded shelters, increased veterinary demand and not enough hands on deck, the workload is grueling. At the SFACC, O’Neill says that she’s been on-call every single day for the past year and a half, and staff shortages at Irving Pet Hospital have forced the clinic to cancel some of its urgent care hours.
Money is a big part of the problem: Vets are often villainized and blamed for the high cost of pet care, in part because the majority of pet owners are uninsured and face sky-high clinic bills as a result. But in fields like shelter medicine, which pays less than private practice, the veterinary debt load can simply be too much, causing trained doctors to choose more lucrative and lifestyle-friendly careers in research or pharmaceutical.
The result? Vet attrition rates are through the roof, and burnout has become an enduring and normalized part of the profession. The stress is so intense that one in six veterinarians has considered suicide, and female vets are 2.4 times more likely than the general population to die by suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But burnout and overwork is just one layer of the problem, and industry veterans say that the shortage has deeper roots in the vet education system itself.
“People don’t want to become vets because it’s just too difficult to get into vet school. There's only 32 veterinary schools in the country, and it's not enough to meet the need,” said Jennifer Scarlett, CEO of the SF SPCA.
Scarlett estimates that roughly 2,000 qualified applicants are turned away from veterinarian school every year, simply because there aren’t enough seats. With just two veterinary schools in the state—UC Davis and Western University of Health Sciences—and none in San Francisco, admissions rates to these programs are extremely low. And with an average graduate debt load of $188,853, the sky-high costs of veterinary education has discouraged many from even considering the field in the first place.
A shortage of trained vet techs, too, has complicated animal care, and some statewide laws have limited their ability to provide basic care services, such as performing certain dental procedures.
“Our veterinary nurses are called registered veterinary technicians, and they're underutilized,” Scarlett said. “They're highly trained, passionate about the field, but we have practice laws that keep them from being able to completely use their skill set. We’re advocating for legislation that would open up what our RVTs can do and allow doctors to take on harder cases.”
When veterinary care is in short supply, private practices increasingly turn away clients or refuse new ones, emergency hospitals struggle to fill shifts and shelters are forced to euthanize or limit the level of care they can provide to some animals.
In San Francisco, SFACC’s euthanizations returned to pre-pandemic levels between 2021-22, and the county has a veterinarian care accessibility score of just 54, indicating that it’s only “somewhat accessible” to find adequate care in the city. Roughly two-thirds of California shelters reported that they could not provide care for basic medical needs, and a third of state shelters report increasing euthanasia, according to the SPCA survey.
“This access to care, this is really nothing new,” O’Neill said. “There are some shelters that maybe have a veterinarian once or twice a week, or none even. And the shelter is kind of the safety net.”
There’s no easy solution to the vet shortage. Even as shelter vets and private practices say an overhaul and expansion of veterinary education is much needed, it’s a far-off goal: legislation limiting telemedicine and vet tech capabilities is difficult to change on a national scale; the field’s high burnout and tough working conditions will likely not abate until overcrowding goes down; and the high costs of vet medicine may continue to make it extremely difficult for pet owners to access the care they need.
Still, the SPCA and others in the field said the situation is not hopeless. According to Scarlett, federal lawsuits are pushing the state to open up telemedicine options, freeing up vet availability, and O’Neill says local veterinary associations offer grants to support specialized care that shelters normally don’t have the capacity to provide. The SPCA estimates that, through its satellite clinics, it effectively gives away $1 million in free services annually.
Liz Lindqwister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org