Track these trends to future proof the veterinary profession

The future is coming fast, and all trends point to big shifts in the veterinary industry, from who owns veterinary practices to how companion animal health care is delivered. Consider these nine trends and how your company can play a role in supporting veterinary teams.

Veterinary teams are under pressure as recent research predicts big shifts in the profession. Let’s review some of the key trends facing veterinary professionals and what they could mean for the future of veterinary medicine.

Trend 1: Not enough veterinarians.  

Recent research commissioned by Mars Veterinary Health points to a possible massive shortage of companion animal veterinarians, a shortfall of 15,000 by 2030. James Lloyd, DVM, Ph.D., former dean of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine and a senior consultant with Animal Health Economics, worked on the studies commissioned by Mars Veterinary Health that predicted the shortage based on American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) data.

What could happen: This gap could mean more than 20 million dogs and cats may not experience veterinary care in 2030 because of a potential shortage of veterinarians. An additional 55 million may not receive care because of the traditionally underserved market: 17% of dogs and 46% of cats have historically not received veterinary care.

Also keep in mind the profession has long been battling shortages of large-animal veterinarians, and predictions in these shortages could mean geographic and socioeconomic areas that do not have access to veterinary care. This could also impact human health, especially from a zoonotic standpoint.

The good news is that Dr. Lloyd has thoughts. From a substantial increase in veterinary student class sizes — most recently roughly 2,500 to 2,600 veterinarians graduate annually — to better leveraging the veterinary team, there are several strategies that could all help address this shortfall. The only catch? Trend no. 2. More on that in a minute.

Trend 2: Not enough credentialed veterinary technicians.  

The research commissioned by Mars Veterinary Health that predicts a veterinarian shortage also signaled a shortage of credentialed veterinary technicians. As many as 132,885 additional credentialed technicians may be needed to meet the 33% increase in demand for pet health care services in 2030 predicted by the 2019 AVMA Economic Summit.

What could happen: The credentialed veterinary technician shortage has been present for a while, and those who are in practice are often underutilized. Dr. Lloyd points to estimates of credentialed technicians only being leveraged for about 30% of the jobs they can do.

The National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America has long called for deeper utilization of technicians’ skills, a move that could lead to better pay for technicians and halt the number of technicians choosing to leave the profession.

Dr. Lloyd suggests an optimum ratio of four credentialed technicians per veterinarian could not only improve efficiency and help deliver the predicted need for veterinary care but also help improve veterinarians’ well-being. On the flip slide, veterinary team well-being seems to be suffering as well. See Trend no. 8 for more on veterinary well-being.

Trend 3: A potential shortage of veterinary specialists.

Both the AVMA and Dr. Lloyd’s research warn of a potential shortage of veterinary specialists, both because of the number of specialists expected to retire in the next 15 years and because of the growing demand for high-quality specialty care for pets.

What could happen: The shortage is already being felt in many specialty areas. In the report “Pet Healthcare in the U.S.: Are There Enough Veterinary Specialists? Is There Adequate Training Capacity?” supported by  Mars Veterinary Health, Dr. Lloyd shows that, depending on the specialty, open positions for specialists range from 1.7 (American College of Veterinary Radiologists) to 4.1 (American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine—Small Animal Internal Medicine) positions per applicant at the five major corporate practices. This figure doesn’t include other private practice or corporate openings and university positions.

Trend 4: Telehealth is gaining ground.

Telehealth boomed in 2020, as many veterinary practices were looking for ways to provide services in the midst of COVID-19. But by 2021, numbers were receding closer to pre-pandemic levels as clients returned to in-person visits and waiting rooms began to reopen.

What could happen: Some signs point to growing interest in telehealth in younger generations. The 2021 Packaged Facts Study “Pet Services in the U.S.” reported 35% of Gen Xers and 31% of millennial and Gen Z pet owners say they like the idea of veterinary telemedicine, and 24% of boomers are keen on the idea.

A January 2022 study conducted by Grand View Research predicts the global veterinary telehealth market size will reach $546.8 million by 2030. Companies like GuardianVets that once only offered veterinary triage have now expanded into services that include a veterinary telemedicine portal for veterinarians.

One potential challenge: Currently, the AVMA does not support a virtual veterinary client patient relationship (VCPR), so clients must be seen in person to establish a VCPR. This makes sense from the standpoint of palpation and having hands and eyes on a patient in person, but it could also challenge veterinarians’ ability to serve clients who live in geographical areas that don’t have populations to support a veterinary practice.

Alternately, telehealth is one of the avenues Dr. Lloyd suggests could help serve the wave of veterinary care pet owners will demand by 2030.

Trend 5: Monoclonal antibodies could drive vet visits.

Brakke’s 2022 Animal Health Industry Overview revealed another potential driver for practices: monoclonal antibodies. Two monoclonal antibodies now exist in veterinary medicine: Cytopoint for atopic dermatitis in dogs and Solensia for pain associated with osteoarthritis in cats. A third, Librela, treats pain for osteoarthritis in dogs, and FDA approval may come soon.

What could happen: Factors including infrequent dosing, high efficacy and the fact dosing requires a visit to the veterinarian could drive more traffic to veterinary practices and generate more revenue for the business.

Trend 6: Consolidators gonna consolidate.

Consolidation continues to accelerate, and Brakke Consulting estimates that about 75% of specialty and emergency practices and about 25% of general practices are owned by consolidators, and their market share is close to 50% based on the size of these practices.

What could happen: Corporate ownership of veterinary practices will continue to grow, especially given data from the AVMA that reports younger veterinarians and female veterinarians show less interest in practice ownership.

Privately owned veterinary practices will need to keep pace and demonstrate how they can differentiate their service and care from their corporate counterparts. Corporations will also need to help the profession continue to graduate enough veterinarians and veterinary technicians to fill their practices.

Trend 7: Student debt continues to climb.

The average debt from veterinary school is $188,853, according to a 2020 AVMA survey of fourth-year students. This number does not include debt accrued in undergraduate studies.

What could happen: Veterinary medicine could become a profession for the privileged, and financial barriers could prevent some candidates from pursuing veterinary medicine. This trend might also impact DEI efforts if veterinary medicine becomes less financially viable for students who need the support of loans, grants and scholarships to pay the blossoming veterinary medical education price tag.

Trend 8: Veterinarians and their teams are experiencing a well-being crisis.

Merck Animal Health released results from its third Veterinary Wellbeing Study, conducted by Brakke Consulting, which revealed an increase in the number of veterinarians reporting serious psychological distress. The study reported 9.7% of veterinarians and 18.1% of veterinary team members suffer from serious psychological distress, and 31% of veterinarians and half of veterinary team members report high burnout.

This study follows research on suicide published in the January 2019 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) that indicated proportionate mortality ratios for suicide of female as well as male veterinarians were higher than for the general population.

What could happen: COVID-19 heightened an already strained veterinary staff, and many reported being short staffed, working longer hours and dealing with higher than normal negative interactions with stressed out pet owners. For a profession that’s already strained, these factors have created a self-perpetuating cycle that leads to more burnout and psychological distress.

How do we turn the tide? Mental health support, employee assistance programs and staffing to allow for more time off have all been suggested as possible paths to improved well-being.

Trend 9: Generational shifts will affect how pet owners spend their money.

The American Pet Products Association’s 2022 National Pet Owners Survey tracked pet owner attitudes about purchasing by generation. The survey identified several key trends that demonstrate shifts in pet owner attitudes, including a growing interest in online purchasing from Gen Z and millennials. The younger generations also show more interest in trying a wider variety of pet food, treats and toys.

On the flip side, spending by Gen X and boomers remained consistent, and these pet owners dropped more money on more expensive pet food, pet care items and veterinary care than younger generations.

What could happen: Demand for veterinary care grew during the pandemic, and the millennial and Gen Z generations tended to add more pets during COVID-19. As they make up a greater share of pet ownership, catering to their preferences will help businesses stay relevant.

The future starts now.

The landscape for veterinary medicine is rapidly changing, and a vital piece of the solution is elevating the well-being of veterinarians and veterinary teams. It’s time for the veterinary industry to ask itself these questions:

  • How can we support veterinary teams through this age of acceleration?
  • What’s getting in the way of veterinarians’ and veterinary team members’ well-being, and how can we innovate solutions to meet their needs?
  • What could a commitment from our company or organization to support veterinary teams look like? How would this benefit pets, pet owners and veterinary professionals?
  • What will happen if we don’t act?

As veterinarians work to protect the health of our pets, let’s work alongside them to continue to elevate the profession that preserves our best friends.

Portia Stewart is the former team channel director for dvm360 and former editor of Firstline magazine. She spent 19 years working in companion animal health media before joining Curious Plot as a senior consultant.