by Photo courtesy of the San Diego Humane Society

To mitigate the crisis-level shortage of veterinarians in California that affects access to care, two of the largest animal welfare organizations are backing a bill to attract existing veterinarians to practice where demand is greatest through debt relief. 

Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris recently introduced AB 1237, the “California Public Interest Veterinary Debt Relief Act”, which aims to attract existing veterinarians to practice where demand is greatest in California, by providing state and private funding to apply toward their school loans. The bill is cosponsored by the San Diego Humane Society and the San Francisco SPCA. 

The new state program would offer payments of up to $150,000 in educational debt relief to licensed California veterinarians who agree to work for a California animal shelter or in underserved communities for at least five years. This comes as California shelters have struggled to provide access to or care for their animals. 

“The veterinary shortage is one of the most serious challenges we face today in animal welfare. We have to take action to attract more veterinarians to practice in California, especially in shelters,” said Dr. Gary Weitzman, president, and CEO of, the San Diego Humane Society. “We also have to think about what this veterinary shortage means for vulnerable pets and their owners throughout the state.”

Veterinarians have the second-highest monthly debt-to-income ratio among graduate degree holders. According to an American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) survey in 2020, the average veterinary school debt was $188,853. The AVMA reports that educational debt for veterinary graduates is growing by nearly $6000 each year. The debt load for these graduating vets makes it next to impossible for them to choose to practice in the sheltering or community service space.

“With veterinary school debt averaging nearly $200,000, it’s no wonder we have a vet shortage,” said Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Irvine). “It’s cruel to allow pets to suffer prolonged illnesses — by alleviating the stress of education debt, we can increase veterinary care access for the nearly 350,000 California shelter animals who are waiting for lifesaving treatment.”

According to a recent survey of California animal shelters, a lack of access to basic care is leading to an increased length of stay for animals in shelters across the state. The survey found that less than half can consistently provide treatment for non-routine illness or injury that requires a veterinarian’s assessment, and 40% of shelter respondents are unable to consistently perform lifesaving — and legally required — spay/neuter surgeries.

About 60% of open shelter veterinary positions remain vacant due to a lack of candidates. According to an SFSPCA survey of 111 respondents, 73 have full-time veterinary positions open, and 82 have full-time registered veterinary technician positions open.

“We know that hundreds of thousands of animals in California shelters don’t have access to adequate veterinary care,” said Dr. Jennifer Scarlett, CEO of the SF SPCA. “Inequitable access to veterinary care is the greatest threat to companion animal welfare today. This debt relief legislation would help California animals get the care they need and deserve.”

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