The burden your veterinarian is carrying

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  • Tracy Stokol: Upon graduating, many vets face enormous amounts of educational debt
  • Shift in gender makeup of vet students indicates burden will likely increase, she says

Tracy Stokol is a veterinarian and professor at Cornell University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)That cute puppy! That fluffy kitten! Your adorable companion gives you devotion, loyalty and endless fodder for your social media feeds. It can also, however, give you major sticker shock when you receive the vet bill.

Even basic tests and checkups can leave you grumbling about the debt that little Fido or Felix owes you. But as you wonder how your little friend can be so expensive, you probably don't consider the heavy cloud of debt that hangs over your vet.
Tracy Stokol
Imagine starting your working life with a debt of about $150,000 -- equivalent to the mortgage on a decent-size house. This is the situation facing most vet school graduates across the United States today, with future students expected to take on even more debt. Educational debt is common among many industries and has become a major political issue in the last few years. But vet debt is a special case.
    Let's start with its sheer magnitude. The level of debt accrued from medical and health science degrees is higher than that of any other graduate degrees due to the high costs of teaching these intensive professions. For vets, the debt burden is compounded by one of the lowest starting salaries among medical professionals. Salaries are even lower for those who have finished four years of veterinary school in addition to their bachelor's degrees but are continuing their training to pursue a doctorate or specialize in a field -- orthopedic surgery, for example.
    In 2013, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that veterinarians had the highest debt-to-income ratio of all medical-based professions. And with these debt levels ever increasing, the reality facing many new vet school graduates, barring a substantial financial windfall, is decades of debt repayment. Want a mortgage? Want a car? Think again.
    But the burden of debt has the potential to get even worse for vets. Over the last half century, the nature of the work that many vets do has changed: While a majority used to treat farm animals, they now treat companion animals. And along with this change has come a shift in the gender makeup of vet students from just over 10% women in the 1960s to more than 80% today.
    Economic data from other professions show that once women dominate a profession, wages in that profession tend to stagnate. Although women currently make up just over half of all vets working in private practice or for public and corporate employers, it's reasonable to assume that with women outnumbering men in veterinary schools by such a large margin, the ratio may shift to favor women more heavily. And this would likely mean wage stagnation for the field.
    We might expect that market forces would reduce the number of students applying to vet schools. The level of student debt and the poor return on investment of a veterinary degree are no secret; they have been highlighted in many professional publications. However, multiple surveys have found that many students applying to vet school are aware of the financial challenges yet disregard them, likely driven by the desire to work with or help animals. It is easy to be hard-nosed and ridicule such people as overly idealistic, but there is a long-standing tradition of people entering medical professions because they feel a need to help.
    So what does this debt mean for future veterinarians?
    It means higher stress levels, which, combined with the emotional toll of dealing with the grief and loss of beloved pets, leads to one of the highest suicide rates among medical professionals. It also means hard choices in which financial concerns take precedence in career decisions, resulting in decreased opportunities for graduates -- the world is no longer their oyster. They might decide to eschew valuable teaching opportunities or research work in favor of practicing.
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    Is there anything we can do about this?
    Paying more for veterinary care is one option, but an unlikely one. Within the veterinary profession, there is increasing recognition and emphasis on educational debt with attempts at mitigation. These attempts include reducing the length of the college education, increasing scholarship funding, counseling on debt management and career counseling. We could also think about moving away from training students to fulfill mostly traditional roles as vet surgeons and moving toward "on-the-job" training once employed, or using the medical profession model of post-degree internships to provide specialty clinical training.
    One thing is clear: Vets have a deep investment in a political solution to America's educational debt crisis. We can only hope that global shifts in attitude will lead to more permanent and equitable solutions.
    In the meantime, vets will continue to chip away at their mountains of debt with each animal they treat. So the next time you pay the bill for your pet's checkup, think about it as an investment in your vet as well as your pet.