Are There Too Many Veterinarians?

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A 2013 Workforce Study by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) found a 12.5 percent excess capacity in veterinary services (meaning that existing practitioners are underutilized and could provide more services). In light of the survey and other industry trends, many veterinary professionals have discussed whether there is an oversupply of veterinarians or a lack of demand for veterinary services. 

So are there too many veterinarians or are there other forces at work that cause this excess capacity? It isn’t a question with a clear-cut answer, and many factors play a role.

Increasing Number of Graduates

It is a fact that the number of individuals entering the veterinary profession has spiked in recent years. The total number of veterinary graduates has increased from approximately 2,500 per year in 2003 to nearly 4,000 per year in 2014 according to AVMA and NAVLE statistics. This is due to a number of factors including the opening of new vet schools, an increase in the number of international vet students seeking U.S. accreditation through equivalency programs, the AVMA accreditation of some international programs, and larger class sizes at established vet schools to cover operational costs. Should the number of programs be limited, or class sized be capped at some specific quota? The AVMA has indicated that it is not in favor of any restrictive policies, and it is questionable as to whether such paths would even be legal.

Overemphasis on Small Animal Practice

Most aspiring veterinarians plan to pursue the popular small animal private practice career track. Many in the industry have commented that there seems to be a serious oversupply of companion animal practitioners, especially considering the fact that new graduates continue to flock to this oversaturated area of the market. Relatively few graduates choose to practice in higher demand areas outside of private practice: research, industry, food safety, or other related roles.

Student Debt to Income Ratio

Veterinary students have an extremely high debt to income ratio compared to other health professions. The average veterinary student could expect to rack up a debt of (on average) $162,113 in 2013, while only expecting to earn an average of $67,136 in their first year of practice. This 2.4 ratio of debt to income is significantly higher than that of the human medical profession, which enjoys a much superior 1.0 ratio of debt to income. The high educational cost of a veterinary education and the difficulty of paying off student loans may influence students towards the roles that are commonly perceived to pay top dollar (i.e. private practice for small animals), keeping them from branching out into other under-served areas of practice.

Flat Demand for Veterinary Services

Demand for veterinary services has not increased at the rapid pace once predicted by veterinary employment and compensation surveys. In fact, it has seemed relatively flat in recent years.  Industry professionals have discussed that there may be a need to market veterinary services more effectively, to promote annual exams, to help clients budget for veterinary services, and to encourage fiscally responsible options such as pet health insurance. The American Pet Product Association projects that both the pet population and pet spending will grow for the foreseeable future, so the potential demand will be there if it can be harnessed by the veterinary industry.

Final Word

While there are certainly more veterinarians populating the profession in recent years, it is not clear that the increasing number of graduates can be implicated as the cause for the present state of the industry. There are many factors playing a role in the situation including a lack of demand for veterinary services, a lopsided distribution of practitioners (heavily biased toward companion animal medicine), and high levels of veterinary student debt.