My first column for this exciting new publication dove into the challenge of trying to solve the shortages of veterinarians in the United States, highlighting what we can learn from human healthcare’s 50-year battle with shortages. Unlike human medicine, we face an additional challenge in Veterinary healthcare: many leaders still question whether or not we face a shortage.

There seem to be two worldviews within the animal health industry: (1) on-the-ground experienced views from practices throughout the country dealing with the shortages every day, and (2) Veterinary trade associations and commentators earnestly trying to convince the profession that shortages either don’t exist or are vastly overstated. This was the theme of some speakers at the Animal Health Corridor gathering recently in Kansas City. It was also the point of a veteran commentator in a recent Brakke report.

I like John Volk of Brakke and have followed his work for years, but I must challenge respectfully his recent comments. Here they are, in full, published as the Brakke Consulting Viewpoint:

“A topic of much discussion in the Veterinary market is the labor shortage. Many are advocating for more Veterinary schools in the U.S. (as many as 8 are under consideration or already underway), and some are advocating for a new mid-level professional equivalent to a physician’s assistant in human medicine. In addressing this issue, I think it’s important to take the long view. In 2012, in response to low and stagnant incomes, the profession commissioned a workforce study that estimated the profession would have excess capacity for the next 25 years. Yet, less than 10 years later, the profession was perceived as being in a ‘severe shortage.’ The 2012 study was no doubt heavily influenced by the impact of the Great Recession, at a time when household discretionary income was as at a modern low. Likewise, the 2021 ‘severe shortage’ was no doubt influenced by the tremendous amount of money poured into the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Discretionary income, especially in middle to upscale households, was robust.

The point is, there will always be ebbs and flows in demand for Veterinary services (i.e. labor) based on the availability of discretionary income (given that companion animal practice employs the majority of veterinarians). But there are more fundamental drivers of demand for the amount and type of Veterinary services. These can best be viewed from a much longer perspective, say 25 to 50 years. In making decisions about opening up more vet schools or creating new practitioner levels, the long view is the most prudent perspective.”

My response: I majored in history at Stanford, so I appreciate the utility of this discipline, but 2023-era industry economics (whether pet healthcare or automobiles) have little, if anything, to gain by taking a glance, or worse yet, being anchored in how things worked “25-50 years ago.” In fact, the challenges we face in Veterinary medicine due to acute and chronic shortages largely stem from how things ran or were viewed 25-50 years. Why’s that? Everything changed because of two things: (1) the human-animal bond and (2) Millennials and Gen Zs emerging as the largest cohorts of pet owners in America. The Veterinary world when Baby Boomers were kids (including me) looked like black-and-white television compared to the color-infused world of Millennials and Gen Zs and their demands for pet healthcare. Veterinary practices and Veterinary schools’ curricula were highly veterinarian-centric, and demand was anchored by vaccinations, injuries and end-of-life procedures (“putting a pet down”). Pets lived outside. That’s why only one Veterinary school was added between 1985 and 2014 when the American population doubled. Does that look like 2023?

Millennials and Gen Zs want human quality and human scale healthcare for their pets, and they’ll pay for it. Convenience, volume, and technological underpinnings of care and the desire of new pet owners to be educated by their veterinarians is the new order. It’s a serendipitous problem for an industry . . . unless you don’t have enough professionals to service demand. The desire for Americans to own pets and care for them intensively during each stage of their limited lives is not going away . . . the human-animal bond has made sure of that. Let’s not worry about whether 8 new schools collectively producing 800-900 graduates annually for our 330-million person country poses occupational hazards.

Chewy Health President Mita Malhotra recently shared data in a Fountain Report interview: “Chewy launched CarePlus in 2022 to address the changing needs of pet owners amid the rising cost of Veterinary care. Chewy data tells us almost half (46%) of pet parents have spent more out-of-pocket on their pets’ medical needs than their own, and notably, 81% of pet parents report their pet’s health is more important to them than their own health.”

That wasn’t the case 25-50 years ago, so why would we assume (or oddly hope) that this won’t be even more the case with the children and grandchildren of Millennials and Gen Zs 25-50 years from now? Understanding the dynamics of the present offers a much stronger guide for the future of pet healthcare than watching a black-and-white video from decades ago.