Veterinarians balance purpose with practicality

New survey was conducted by Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets ahead of World Veterinary Day.

From the childhood dream of becoming a veterinarian and saving the lives of pets, to today's realities of practicing veterinary medicine, the deep commitment veterinarians feel for their calling remains unchanged. However, certain factors make that commitment increasingly difficult. Long hours, understaffing, student debt and fatigue can all take their toll--but nothing more so than clients who can't afford appropriate veterinary care, according to a survey conducted by Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets ahead of World Veterinary Day, which is celebrated the last Saturday of April.

Survey shows altruism at odds with financial realities

In the survey*, nearly 6 in 10 practitioners (57%) said their desire to become veterinarians began in elementary school or earlier, fueled by a shared aspiration to make pets' lives better. And this unwavering commitment remains unchanged years later, with nearly 9 in 10 veterinarians surveyed (87%) continuing to choose saving and improving the lives of pets as a fulfilling attribute of being a veterinarian, along with improving the lives of pet owners (60%) and contributing to society/playing an important role in the community (53%).

These findings are at odds, however, with the realities of veterinary care: more than 80 percent of participating veterinarians said they encounter clients who are unable to pay for treatment of a pet's life-threatening health issue at least once a month, and more than one-third (37%) said they are faced with such situations once a week or more. In addition, an overwhelming majority indicated that having clients who cannot afford appropriate veterinary care is one of the challenges they currently experience as a veterinarian, with 95% citing it as a major or minor difficulty.

"These results reflect the sense of disillusionment we know is felt by so many practitioners in the veterinary profession today," said Callie Harris, DVM, senior veterinary communications manager for Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets. "Veterinarians enter the profession because of our call to care for pets, but economic realities frequently force us to make painful choices about the care we can provide to certain patients."

According to the survey, nearly all veterinarians (95%) have encountered a situation where a client made the decision to euthanize a pet because the client was unable to pay for a life-saving medical treatment, while more than three-quarters (78%) of those surveyed indicated their typical solution in cases where clients can't pay is to significantly limit the care they provide. Meanwhile, just under one in four (23%) said their practices provide the needed care and absorb the cost.

All such solutions require sacrifice on the part of veterinarians, whether the cost is emotional, financial, or professional, noted Dr. Harris. She added that the inability to treat pets whose cash-strapped owners can't pay for services like emergency and after-hours care, as well as conditions such as cancer, leads almost half (45%) of surveyed practitioners to feel they are not fully upholding the oath they took to care for animals if they don't treat the animals.

Early in 2024, Pro Plan Veterinary Diets announced the creation of the Pro Plan Veterinary Support Mission to help remove barriers veterinarians face in practice. The brand has donated $1.2 million to date to the American Veterinary Medical Foundation REACH (Reaching Every Animal with Charitable Healthcare) Program, which provides grants for veterinarians who have clients experiencing financial difficulties. The program, available to all AVMA members, provides financial grants of up to $2,000 per calendar year for each veterinarian in a practice to reimburse the cost for owners unable to pay for care.

"It's been my experience that when pet owners who are experiencing financial hardship can be helped when a pet-care crisis occurs, the chances that they will continue to return to the practice for routine veterinary care often improve," said Veterinarian Christina Frick, DVM, of Frick Veterinary Services in Larned, Kansas. "The REACH Program has been wonderful for my clinic."

To expand the impact of its mission, the brand is also donating $100,000 to the charitable veterinary foundation, Paisley Paws, which provides grants directly to partnered clinics to assist with treatment or specialty care for families experiencing hardship and are unable to afford the cost of life-saving veterinary care for their pets.

"If you ask any member of a veterinary team why they started in this industry, they will tell you it's for their love of animals, but you quickly realize, you are taking care of the people, just as much as you are the animals. There is nothing more heartbreaking than having an animal come in need of life-saving care and having to explain to the family their beloved pet will not survive without the emergency services they need but cannot afford. Paisley Paws Foundation has changed the way we function as a hospital, allowing us to focus more on saving patients

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