The most surprising thing about the Dumb Friends League’s (DFL) animal clinic at Colorado State University’s SPUR Campus is not that it permits the public to watch dogs and cats undergo surgery. It’s that people flock to the north Denver facility to see the operations—everything from routine spays on orange tabbies to the removal of teeth from a German shepherd. There is, thankfully, a purpose behind the spectacle: Colorado is experiencing a dire veterinarian shortage, and DFL believes the clinic might motivate future generations to pick up the trade.

Last year, CSU completed a survey of more than 700 veterinary care professionals in Colorado; 67 percent of them reported having to turn away patients every week because they’re too busy. More veterinarians could help, but vets are scarce in Colorado, in part because the schooling is pricey. The American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges estimates in-state tuition and other educational expenses in Colorado average $274,000. To lower the financial burden while increasing the number of providers, DFL helped introduce a state ballot measure that would create a master’s level veterinary professional associate (VPA) certification in Colorado modeled after the physician assistant position in human health care. Under the supervision of a licensed vet, a VPA could diagnose, prescribe, and even operate.

The measure, however, got the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association’s (CVMA) hair up. The organization argues that there’s already a midlevel designation for registered veterinarian technicians. Plus, there’s little evidence that VPAs would earn enough to cover the cost of the master’s degree, which the CVMA estimates could run as much as $80,000. So this past session, state Representative Karen McCormick, a vet and member of the CVMA, introduced a bill that increases the services that vet techs—whose associate degrees train them to handle tasks such as administering vaccines—could perform, such as extracting teeth, but doesn’t go as far as the VPA measure.

Governor Jared Polis signed McCormick’s legislation into law this past March. Nevertheless, DFL’s coalition is forging ahead with its VPA measure, which, as of press time, was still searching for enough signatures to make the November ballot. CSU is also developing a curriculum that would train future VPAs. Both sides, however, agree that their respective plans are not cure-alls; it will take years to fill the care gap. Even if the DFL surgery theater happens to inspire a 10-year-old in the audience today, she would likely be 26 before she could wield the scalpel herself. But at least it’s a start.

3 Other Ways Colorado Is Boosting Care for Pets

  • $6.8 million: Funding the National Western Scholarship Trust has awarded to more than 1,800 students who have entered animal care programs since its inception in 1983
  • 20 percent: Increase in incoming veterinary students that will be accommodated by the 2026 completion of the CSU Veterinary Health and Education Complex
  • $90,000: Maximum student debt the USDA’s Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program will forgive veterinarians who practice in underserved regions in Colorado