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Econ 919 — Vet shortage

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Becoming a veterinarian might be a dream for a lot of young animal lovers. But over the years, the number of people working in the profession has seen a decline, leading to a veterinarian shortage. The Kenai Peninsula is no exception to this.

“It’s always been a challenge to get veterinarians here on the peninsula, just because people don’t know about it, so it isn’t really a place that necessarily would attract somebody,” said Jim Delker, owner of Twin Cities Veterinary Clinic in Soldotna. “Unless you’ve visited here or come here, it’s not a place that people would think of or think that they want to work.”

His clinic employs seven vets, three of whom work part-time. He says that a recent vacancy the clinic had took nearly two years to fill.

“Throughout the whole country, there’s probably few places that say they’re fully staffed, or couldn’t hire another veterinarian,” Delker said. “It’s not unique to the Kenai Peninsula, I think that we have a little more struggle drawing employees just because you have to really embrace the Alaskan lifestyle and be a little more remote than some of the amenities you get in bigger cities.”

Although the shortage of veterinary care was exacerbated by the pandemic, it’s been an issue for years. Mary Huhndorf is a veterinarian at North Road Veterinary wellness clinic in Nikiski. She noticed the peninsula’s shortage in 2007 when she was applying for part-time veterinary work.

At the time, Twin Cities Vet was seeking a full-time employee but hired Huhndorf to work part-time due to a lack of other interested candidates.

“In order for there to be more veterinarians, more people have to be attracted to the field,” Huhndorf said. “And for people to be attracted to the field, the pay has to be there.”

According to U.S. News and World Report, veterinarians make roughly half the salary of their physician counterparts. Yet, Huhndorf says that veterinary school can be more challenging than medical school. While there is no data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics regarding veterinary salaries in Alaska, Huhndorf believes that other regions of the country pay veterinarians higher salaries, making the draw to the Kenai Peninsula, and Alaska, less enticing. She also says when she worked as a veterinarian in Connecticut, she made double her current salary.

Even though colleges like the University of Alaska Fairbanks have a veterinary program, those students often transfer to Colorado State University for their clinical instruction. Huhndorf says that because they can earn higher wages elsewhere, many of those students do not return to Alaska.

An increasing number of women pursue veterinary medicine. When Huhndorf graduated from veterinary school in 1983, a third of her class was women. Now, women make up more than 60% of working veterinarians.

Even so, Delker says women are more likely to leave the veterinary field at some point in their career to take up childcare needs, contributing to the shortage of vets nationwide.

“How do we accommodate for that? Do we expand veterinary schools? Do we expand veterinary programs so that we have more total veterinarians? Something has to be done to fix that gap or that void that occurs from just normal transition in and out of the profession,” he said.

The veterinary field also experiences high rates of burnout. A study from the American Veterinary Medical Association suggests that only one-third of veterinarians would recommend the field.

Delker and Huhndorf agree that one the best ways to increase the number of vets locally is by mentoring veterinary students and introducing more people to the field. They also feel that outreach about the Kenai Peninsula is a step in the right direction.

Hunter Morrison is a news reporter at KDLL
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