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January 01, 2020

More pets, more debt?

Study looks at link between propensity for taking in animals, financial decision-making
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Early research shows a potential link between the number of pets a veterinary student has and that student’s financial behavior and outcomes.

A small study found a statistically significant correlation between educational debt and the number of pets veterinary students reported taking care of. Students with nine pets accumulated over $70,000 more debt during veterinary college than did students who had no pets while attending veterinary college, according to research presented by Bridgette Bain, PhD, during the AVMA Economic Summit, Oct. 22-23, 2019, in Rosemont, Illinois. However, only 0.2% of responding students had nine pets.

“How many animals have you been financially responsible for during your matriculation during veterinary school?” was a question included in the 2019 AVMA Senior Survey, which gathers information from fourth-year veterinary students prior to graduation.

Denise Sorbet's cats and dogs
Denise Sorbet is a third-year veterinary student, and she has five animals. (Left photo, top to bottom) Theodore, Emma, and Rommel. (Right photo, left to right) Sherman Firefly and Eisenhower Danger (or Ike)

The data show that over half of responding students had one or two pets while attending veterinary college, and these students accumulated between $140,000 and about $155,000 in educational debt during that time.

“I don’t think necessarily that more pets translate into more debt, but I think this may be a proxy for financial decision-making and overall financial behavior,” said Dr. Bain, associate director of analytics in the AVMA Veterinary Economics Division. “This is a preliminary analysis, so we have a lot more work to do in terms of understanding this relationship.”

Jessi Coryell, a third-year student at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine and a Student AVMA delegate, knows that her pets contribute to her overall debt. Her two dogs have required some dental work, and she said she has used her student loans to pay for veterinary care before. Coryell is an in-state student and is also earning her Master’s in Public Health. Her total student loan debt is $177,768.46, which includes some of her undergraduate debt. Coryell still has to take out loans for spring semester, as well as the full calendar year of clinics.

“It’s unfortunate,” Coryell said. “I’m not able to work enough to help supplement, so I would definitely say it’s financially an issue. … I definitely have to prioritize and put them (my pets) at the top of my list.”

Beyond the financial strain, she said the time commitment her four pets require is also hard to balance with her school work. Coryell points to her partner’s help as being one of the reasons she can do it.

Coryell said her class has just started doing some live surgeries on shelter animals, and she has noticed her fellow students adopting the animals they do surgery on.

“As veterinary students, our first instinct is to take care of an animal that needs additional care or that we feel someone else might not be able to adequately care for, and generally those are going to be the animals that are more expensive,” Coryell said. “So, I think it is just a matter of being mindful of those decisions and not necessarily saying that they should or shouldn’t. … Just be educated on the decisions that you’re making.”

Coryell said she has learned a lot about making financially intelligent decisions while being involved in the Veterinary Business Management Association chapter at Minnesota.

Not all veterinary students agree that pets have an impact on their debt, including Denise Sorbet, a third-year veterinary student at the Midwestern University College of Veterinary Medicine in Glendale, Arizona, who has five animals. 

“I don’t think having pets contributes to my overall debt,” Sorbet said. “My husband and I are pretty good about saving. … I have been very fortunate, knock on wood, that my animals have been pretty healthy other than a few problems.”

Despite that, Sorbet said she is worried about the overall cost of veterinary services. She has insurance for one of her dogs and is a part of the Purina for Professionals program, which offers low-cost Purina products for animals.

Dr. Bain said there is more analysis to be done in this area. She plans to continue this line of research in 2020.

“Another question we have is, do you have a budget? Is there a relationship between the number of pets students take care of and whether they have a personal budget or not?” she asked. “That would lend itself to our hypothesis that this is a proxy for financial behavior.”

Chart: Adoption and arrears
“How many animals have you been financially responsible for during your matriculation during veterinary school?” was a question included in the 2019 AVMA Senior Survey.