The Disappearance of Large-Animal Vets

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Country vet prepares an injection.
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Country vet examines a horse's lower leg.

Among the faces disappearing from rural America is the small-town veterinarian. Large-animal vets encapsulate a shortage with far-reaching consequences.

“The things that are driving the shortage of veterinary medicine are the same dynamics that are causing small grocery stores and drugstores to close; why towns are shrinking,” says Dr. Ralph Richardson, dean of Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Manhattan. “The ability for a family to make a living can be more difficult (in a small town). A veterinary practice is no different from any other small business.”

Another factor is the aging workforce; as current veterinarians reach retirement age, there are fewer veterinarians ready to take their place.

He says the shortage is affecting not only food animals but companion animals as well. Richardson sees a shrinking population, the regionalization of superstores, and the continuing urbanization of America as factors in moving people away from the traditional small family farms and the businesses that support them.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, close to 60,000 veterinarians were employed in 2008; and while the bureau projected the 2018 number to be close to 80,000, the American Veterinary Medicine Association lists more than 90,000 veterinarians in practice in 2010. The problem appears when those numbers are broken down into types of practice; only 1.8 percent of those 90,000 are exclusive to food animals, with 6.3 percent predominantly working with food animals, and another 7 percent working in a mixed animal practice. Almost 70 percent of the U.S. private-practice vets exclusively treat companion animals, and most of those practices are in urban areas.

Most experts agree that the shortage of small-town vets is already at the critical stage.

“As we look at the global picture and the need for protein, particularly animal protein, and as the population grows from 7 billion to 9 billion,” says Dr. Bennie Osburn, dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California – Davis, “there’s going to be a huge need for individuals who really understand livestock production and the control of disease.”

Richardson agrees. “It’s already critical as it relates to having someone in the community who would recognize emerging diseases, typically a foreign animal disease that might be accidently or intentionally introduced to the livestock population,” he says.

One of the necessary reasons to have a veterinarian in the area, according to Osburn, is as an onsite surveillance expert. “If you have an emerging disease, if you do not have a veterinarian in the area, it could be days or weeks before a diagnosis is made. For every hour delay in making a diagnosis, it’s a $2 million figure that comes up.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association reports that at least 500 counties with large populations of food animals have no veterinarians.

However, the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, in a recent study, has found that there is no shortage of veterinarians. Many of the organization’s student members say they are having difficulty finding work with livestock practices. The study did recognize, however, that many rural areas are underserved.

Both Richardson and Osburn agree that steps are being taken to alleviate the shortage of small-town veterinarians.

Richardson cites an example of three or four small veterinary practices banding together to cover a larger geographic area, with one vet traveling to each county or town one day a week. For emergencies, people would have to travel to the main, centralized clinic.

Veterinarians are expanding their practices to include more types of public health, including water testing. Another avenue, Osburn says, is the combination of a veterinary medicine degree and a public health medical degree.

“We have an individual with a veterinary degree, and she’s also a nurse practitioner, and we have a student or two looking to follow in her footsteps,” he says. The combination allows the individual to become a more intrinsic part of a rural community’s health-care team, and opens up the possibility of using telemedicine – the use of new technology such as Smartphones – as a means of dealing with emergency response situations.

Approximately 2,500 students graduate each year from the 28 accredited veterinary colleges in the United States. The cost of such an education is often a prohibitive factor. Many students graduate $150,000 in debt.

“If you go back 10 or 15 years,” Osburn says, “those of us who went through veterinary school then, we essentially paid nothing to go to school. Society paid for it. Now society no longer wants to make that contribution, and much of it is being transferred to the students, and that is creating a major challenge for us.”

States and the federal government are trying to help; both Richardson and Osburn point to the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment program, in which students who choose to practice in rural areas can receive up to $100,000 of their loans paid back over time.

“Some states, such as Kansas, have programs where students are selected their first year of veterinary college,” Richardson says, “and receive a $20,000-a-year loan that is forgiven at the rate of $20,000 per year for every year they practice in rural Kansas.”

Richardson says at least 18 states offer similar programs.

The two deans, as well as Dr. John Thomson, dean emeritus and professor at Iowa State University in Ames, agree that business acumen is key to a small-practice veterinarian’s success.

“The Academy of Rural Veterinarians has a mentoring program for young practitioners who practice in rural areas,” Thomson says. “There are a number of different (pieces of) legislation, both state and federal, that are in the works to help. We really need to consolidate these different efforts, synergize them, and collaborate to find some real answers for building a sustainable rural infrastructure of veterinarians.”

Many veterinary colleges are now pushing students to take business classes, and for practicing veterinarians to use continuing education classes to sharpen their business know-how.

Richardson pointed to a rapidly growing student organization, Veterinary Business Management Association, as another means students are using to increase their business savvy before graduation.

While many veterinary students choose to stay in urban areas, for any number of reasons, Thomson points out an important consideration.

“One thing that needs to be stressed is that there is a great quality of life in these small towns in rural areas,” he says. “My wife and I raised our family in a town of 400 people in two lowly populated counties in Iowa, practiced there for 20 years. The quality of life is very good and very difficult to duplicate in an urban or metropolitan area.

“I think people need to know that. It’s challenging and it is very rewarding. I don’t think there is any way to become more integrated into a community.”