Aislin Tweedy

(Daily Montanan) Amid a nationwide shortage of veterinarians, the executive director of the Human Society of Western Montana said she is also seeing the squeeze across Montana, where people are struggling to get veterinary care.

“When you have a veterinary shortage, nationally, statewide, it really is compounded for people who already don’t have much access to veterinary care,” said Humane Society Executive Director Marta Pierpoint. “So it is really important for organizations like ours to reach into rural communities and provide support when there’s just an inability to even access any kind of care.”

The shortage has meant delays in surgery for animals and reduced hours at some clinics. It has professionals in the field pointing out the need for more vet training programs, especially because Montana is an agricultural state with livestock.

Pierpoint said the Humane Society, which is based in Missoula, has 12 trips planned on their outreach schedule to rural and reservation communities — to Browning, the Flathead and across western Montana. Employees take monthly outreach trips to the Rocky Boy’s Reservation, where they give X-rays and vaccines, and spay and neuter animals.

Because of a shortage of veterinary technicians, surgeries cannot be performed as quickly as they could with a qualified staff to support the efforts, and Pierpoint said it is difficult to do outreach trips with the shortage.

With a minimum 10-person team, Pierpoint said the Humane Society can probably do 40 surgeries and provide 80-100 vaccines to animals over the three days they’re on Rocky Boy’s Reservation.

“If you’re lucky enough to have two or three surgeons, then you need the support of veterinary technicians, with each surgeon monitoring the anesthesia and a prep team,” said Pierpoint. “Ideally, you would have one prep team for each veterinarian, because that can move your flow faster.”

She said so far this summer, the Humane Society has not been able to staff the teams heavily, which slows them down because they need veterinary assistants helping the animals recover while others handle paperwork.

Cassidee Boland, the manager of the Missoula-based Pruyn Veterinary Hospital, said they have been lucky retaining doctors. But during the main days of the COVID-19 pandemic, they did see a shortage and were down two doctors for a significant period, but now are at five doctors.

When they had only two doctors, Pruyn had to change the hours of the typically 24-hour clinic because just a few employees were being spread thin, she said.

“We can kind of speak for ourselves when we see how many more appointments are for our new pets – kitties, puppies – that people are adopting,” said Boland. “That’s one little area that a lot of people might not consider on top of the mental health issue that we see in veterinary medicine and the kind of burnout that we see.”

Capacity for training veterinarians is an issue in Montana and neighboring Idaho, according to professionals in the industry.

Robin Collier, the administrative coordinator of the Department of Animal Veterinary and Food Science at the University of Idaho, said the university prepares students for entry in veterinary school and is seeing three to four times as many students interested in veterinary school amid the shortage.

“The issue is the number of available openings for students; that needs to be increased,” said Collier.

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Collier said the Idaho Legislature needs to expand the number of veterinarian students being trained because lawmakers fund the veterinary program through the state budget. Cattle ranchers are among those helping to make recommendations to the legislature; Idaho, like Montana, needs large-animals vets who can care for livestock.

“We had a task force this past year which included members of the legislature and veterinarian industry professionals around the state, as well as our herd owners,” said Collier. “And we have recommended that the state legislature expand the veterinary program and support Idaho. The ball is in their court, and they will have to take that up during the next legislative session.”

Pierpoint said another factor for the shortage is that there are not enough schools, and that Montana doesn’t have a veterinary school even though it’s an agricultural state.

“There are just simply not enough veterinary schools, whether they are for-profit schools or state schools, and there’s a limit to how quickly some can put a quality program together,” said Pierpoint. “And similarly for the vet techs in Montana, there isn’t a vet program right now at this moment in Montana, so it is challenging to find qualified employees interested.”

Pierpoint said her team works in the veterinary field because they love it and are grateful to serve western Montana’s people and pets, such as those on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation.

“We really do feel that it is aligned with our mission, which is building opportunities for pets and people to thrive, and you can’t thrive if you don’t have the opportunity,” said Pierpoint. “To be able to provide that opportunity is joyful.

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