Front Street Animal Shelter adapts during ongoing veterinarian shortage

Like other shelters across California and the U.S., Front Street Animal Shelter is being affected by an ongoing veterinarian shortage.

Increased pet adoptions during the pandemic and more veterinarians retiring from the profession than entering it are contributing factors in the crisis.

A recent statewide study by the San Francisco SPCA and University of California, Davis, found 68% of shelters are “unable to provide complete care to treat conditions commonly seen in shelters,” and 40% of shelters are unable to consistently provide spay and neuter services.

While Front Street continues to serve as many animals as it can, the shortage is impacting the type of care it can provide as well as the timing for provision.

“We’re currently caring for over 700 animals,” said Dr. Victoria Smalley, the shelter’s only full-time veterinarian. “Many come in sick or injured or develop illness in the crowded shelter environment. It’s very difficult for our small medical team to keep up with the observation, treatment, and surgical needs of such a large population.”

In addition to treating sick and injured pets, Front Street is required by state law to spay or neuter every animal before it’s adopted.

The shelter is working nonstop to recruit and hire more veterinarians and vet technicians, who play a crucial role in diagnostics, treatments, surgical preparation and paperwork.

However, hiring remains challenge as the market is competitive. “Many veterinary professionals have left the field, and salaries in private practice have risen dramatically,” said Phillip Zimmerman, manager at Front Street.

Until more staff can be brought onboard, Front Street has implemented several strategies, including sending animals to offsite veterinary clinics, hiring part-time contract veterinarians and leveraging the shelter’s robust foster program.

“If it weren’t for community members fostering these animals while they wait for surgery, animals would sit for weeks in the shelter, and our population would become completely unmanageable,” Zimmerman said.

Two state bills may provide some relief in the future, Zimmerman said.

Assembly Bill 1399 would allow veterinarians to provide virtual care and could help both public and private veterinarians to be more efficient and accessible to people in underserved or remote areas.

Senate Bill 669, which permits registered veterinary technicians to act as an agent of a veterinarian for certain vaccinations and treatments, would allow veterinarians to delegate some of their workload, also creating efficiencies.

In the meantime, Front Street will continue to do all it can with its limited staffing, Zimmerman said.

“Although the situation is difficult, we are grateful for the one amazing full-time veterinarian we do have, as well as the support of donors and fosters who are truly making a difference during these challenging times,” he said.

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