Large Animal Vet Shortage
A look at why veterinarians for large-animal care in Kentucky and across the nation are in short supply
On a recent Thursday evening, veterinarian Dr. Brian Dyer wrapped up a typical 12-hour day with a visit to High Hopes Stables in Monticello to geld a colt and inoculate a handful of others against a host of equine health threats. While dispensing the vaccinations, he advised local horse breeder and trainer Kari Sullivan about the effects of mold allergies on horses and use of fertilizers on hay crops.
Dyer has been making farm visits like the one at High Hopes for the better part of 20 years. And when he's not treating the horses in Sullivan's care, he's advising cattle breeders about herd management and food-animal health issues. For his clients, Dyer is a valuable asset. He is also one of a shrinking number of Kentucky veterinarians practicing mixed-animal care, predominantly large animals. "I know," Dyer says, "I'm one of a dying breed."
Kentucky State Veterinarian Robert Stout says the number of large-animal veterinary practitioners in Kentucky has been steadily shrinking since Dyer established his practice two decades ago. And livestock producers in some parts of the state are feeling the pinch much more than others.
According to an American Veterinary Medical Association survey, there were 58,240 veterinarians in practice nationwide in 2007. Of those, 8,627 were practicing large-animal medicine, with roughly 240 large-animal veterinarians currently practicing in Kentucky.
"In horse country around Lexington, there are probably 150 veterinarians who work with nothing but horses," says Stout. "But there may be fewer than a dozen who practice farm animal veterinarian care, known as food-animal medicine in the profession. North, south, and west of the Lexington region, the shortage of equine and food-animal veterinarians is even worse."
Explaining the reasons behind the shortfall is complicated. But shifting demographics play a large role, Stout says.
"You have to look at the history," he says. "In 1973, the typical vet student was a young, rural male whose plan was to finish veterinary school and go back to his hometown to establish a mixed practice working with large and small animals. That's not the rule anymore."
These days, Stout says, roughly 75 percent of veterinary school graduates are women who hail from urban areas. And they are generally more comfortable joining companion-animal practices that offer 9-to-5 work schedules and predictable routines, rather than embrace the arduous, sometimes dangerous, work large-animal practitioners perform.
Dr. Tammie Bumgard-ner fits that demographic. Bumgardner entered veterinary school with the intention of looking after companion animals--generally dogs and cats. Since establishing the Buck Creek Animal Clinic in Eubank in 2005, she has performed limited routine services such as wound care and annual health screenings for her horse-owning neighbors. But she does not work with cattle.
There are some practical reasons why.
"I'm 5-feet-1-inch tall," Bumgardner says. "If you're talking about working with an 800-pound cow, I've got an injury risk. But beyond that, if it's going to cost $200 for me to take care of the animal, and the animal is worth $300, it's not economical for the owner to call me in. For a cattle farmer, it's a business decision."
By contrast, dog and cat owners are generally more willing to turn a blind eye when it comes to paying the price for small-animal healthcare, Bumgardner says. In addition, limiting their practices to small or companion animals allows veterinarians to control their investments in equipment, medications, and other supplies.
"When a person goes to the doctor with an illness, he's going to be sent to one place for blood work and another place for X-rays," Bumgardner says. "Veterinarians have to have all that equipment to treat animals. Even the drugs aren't the same when it comes to treating different animals. It's all very costly."
Those facts are not lost on young veterinarians --whose starting salaries can be as low as $23,000--as they ponder which practice path to take.
"People are graduating from veterinary school with $100,000 to $200,000 of student loan debt," Bumgardner says. "Those debts have to be paid."
That debt burden is also driving large-animal practitioners into more lucrative specialized practices, according to Dyer. As a result, some large-animal owners are forced to handle many routine procedures such as vaccinations on their own.
"In some places in Kentucky, people have to drive 50 miles for routine large-animal services," Dyer says. "So people are bypassing the vet, buying medications and other items online or through catalogs, and administering those things themselves. Now, large-animal vets have not only lost the income from the service call, but from the supply sales, too."
But that trend may be turning. Stalls at Kari Sullivan's barn are increasingly occupied by horses boarded there by owners with scant large-animal care experience. Those people, she says, are more than willing to support specialists who can keep their horses healthy.
"My clients want everything possible done for their horses, and they're willing to pay for barn visits for vaccinations and routine care," Sullivan says. "And in an emergency, they want the peace of mind to know there's an experienced veterinarian they can call on to at least make a diagnosis."
Even if that's the case, Dyer believes economics will continue to drive changes in the way large-animal veterinarians deliver their services.
Costs of doing business and the geographic distances between clients may eventually lead veterinarians to charge fees for consultations, he says.
Whatever the future holds, Dyer intends to keep his commitments to his clients.
"What else am I supposed to do?" he says. "I have a responsibility to the animals."
Filling the large-animal healthcare gap
Since becoming president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Kentucky veterinarian Dr. James O. Cook has logged lots of time traveling to meetings with lawmakers about the shortage of large-animal veterinarians nationwide.
His message to legislators is simple: promoting careers in large-animal veterinary medicine is a national security issue.
"Food safety is critical to homeland security," says Cook, whose general mixed-animal practice is located in Lebanon. "There have to be animal inspections to ensure food safety, and right now there are about half as many large-animal veterinarians to perform those inspections as we need. By 2016, the shortfall is going to reach crisis proportions."
According to Cook, most policymakers realize the stakes are high. Convincing young people to enter the large-animal veterinary field is another story. That's partly because the path to the profession is long and expensive.
But Kentucky's future veterinarians are getting a leg up. Though Kentucky has no in-state veterinary college, an agreement between the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education and Auburn and Tuskegee universities allows Kentucky residents to study veterinary medicine at those schools without paying higher nonresident tuition costs.
During the 2008 General Assembly, Kentucky Farm Bureau worked with the Kentucky Veterinarian Medical Association to increase the number of slots for veterinarian students from 36 to 46 who receive in-state tuition.
Cook would also like to see Kentucky lawmakers fund a program that would offer recent veterinary school graduates tuition reimbursement grants in exchange for a four-year commitment to practice here.
Meanwhile, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges are working together on ways to encourage veterinary school enrollment nationwide. New veterinary college admission models that take farm work experience into consideration are under discussion. So is an effort to network with rural youth organizations such as the Future Farmers of America and the 4-H Club to spark kids' interest in veterinary medicine.
Whatever strategies are adopted, Cook says the veterinary shortage gap won't be filled overnight.
"We're looking long term," Cook says. "There is going to be no quick fix."
Kentucky has long been recognized as a world-class horse producer. And according to the most recent available Kentucky Field Office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service survey, 149,465 horses and ponies and 4,138 mules, burros, and donkeys reside throughout the state.
But it's less widely known that Kentucky is a major national player in the production of other livestock as well.
According to the NASS, Kentucky was home to a total of 2.4 million head of cattle in 2008, bred and raised at 45,000 cattle operations across the state. As a result, Kentucky's 1,159,000 beef cows and heifers made the state the largest beef cattle producer east of the Mississippi River last year.
Goat production is high, too. An estimated 85,000 goats (based on national statistics) were residing on Kentucky farms, ranking the state fifth among goat-producing states nationwide.
Meanwhile, 350,000 hogs and pigs were born and raised on Kentucky farms, according to the December 2007 NASS census. And the state produced 37,000 sheep and lambs that year, as well.
Overall, according to the NASS, livestock accounted for nearly $3 billion in cash receipts to Kentucky farmers in 2007.
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