Alarm Over Rural Veterinarian Shortage

Fewer Rural Vets Threatens Animals, Farmers and Food Supply

That explains why Furman in Nebraska has a mixed-animal practice, treating both farm animals and house pets.

In all, only about 17 percent of the country's veterinarians work exclusively in food-animal medicine, compared to the more than 70 percent of vets who work with companion animals, such as dogs and cats. And that number is expected to drop. Recent studies indicate the amount of food-supply veterinarians will likely fall by about five percent every year, according to the AVMA.

That news is unsettling to Hilary Maricle, 32, a farmer in Albion, Neb., who said she needs veterinarians to come to her farm most often during emergencies with her livestock.

"And that's always when they're busiest," she said. "It's in middle of the night, it's on the weekend, it's when we need them now."

But that's not always possible when the veterinarians she works with are stretched too thin.

"We start to see the real challenge when vets are already on a call, working with other animals," she said. "They'll say they can meet us as soon as possible, but that might be in four hours. They want to be everywhere, but they just can't."

The shortage has even lead Maricle and her husband to consider treating their farm animals on their own.

"We spend a lot of time worrying about our animals, so the concern for not having a vet when I need one is huge," she said. "We ask ourselves, what are the things we can learn from the vet to do on our own if that shortage is there?"

Explaining the Shortage

A declining rural population, debt of up to $140,000 for veterinarians starting out, and an irregular schedule nursing thousand-pound animals in sometimes grueling conditions are factors that can easily lead a recent graduate of veterinary school to choose against the life of a large-animal vet.

"We still have this rural population farming, yet we don't have the concentration where it's economically viable for a rural veterinarian to set up a practice there," DeHaven said.

In 2010, only 12 percent of new veterinary school graduates sought employment in rural practices, as opposed to the 33 percent who went into companion-animal practices, earning on average almost $10,000 more per year, according to the NIFA. About half of graduates went into areas of advanced study, such as internships and residencies.

For Ellis in Texas, it's no wonder then why many of today's students choose to work with companion animals, instead of being "notoriously underpaid" as a food-animal veterinarian.

"Rural vets are often faced with the dilemma of, 'I can neuter a dog in my clinic for $100, or I can drive a hundred miles to sew up a sheep for $50,'" Ellis said.

Plus, added Ellis, more importance is routinely placed on companion animals.

"Even farmers think, 'I'll pay anything to save my cat, but I'm not necessarily going to pay anything to rescue my goat.'"

Another lure of a companion-animal practice is the standard workday schedule that accompanies it.

"It's 10-hour days as opposed to 12-hour days in a climate-controlled room," said David Kirkpatrick of the AVMA. "That's probably much more practical than working in excessively high or bone-chilling temperatures with animals weighing thousands of pounds."

This shortage of rural vets, in turn, "contributes to a lack of rural vitality because without veterinary support, the needs of animal health operations, ranches and farms oftentimes can't be profitable," Sherman said.

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