By DOUG SCHMITZ
FRANKFORT, Ky. – A shortage of large animal veterinarians can certainly impact the farming community.
“This shortage of large animal veterinarians in Kentucky and throughout the nation has already started impacting the farmer, and could impact our food source in the future,” said Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles. To that end he has formed a working group to look for solutions to Kentucky’s large animal veterinarian shortage.
“This creates a significant concern for farmers being able to access adequate animal care to keep their herds and flocks healthy,” he added. “The working group brings together the brightest agriculture minds to find solutions to the issues at hand, and improve the services farmers need.”
Nationwide, a shortage of large animal veterinarians is creating a negative impact as farmers search to find the veterinary care they need for their animals, especially since large animal veterinarians are essential to the protection of the nation’s food supply, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture said.
Statistics indicate only five percent of veterinarians in the U.S. practice on large animals. The other 95 percent have turned to small animal practices, research, or regulatory. In Kentucky, large animal veterinarians make up an even smaller percentage, with only about three percent of veterinarians in the state having dedicated large animal practices, the department said.
According to a Feb. 24 Kentucky Department of Agriculture statement there are several reasons for this shortage.
1. Salaries: Large animal veterinarians make less on average than those in private small animal practices. The average salary for a first-year small animal veterinarian is around $96,000, while an equine veterinarian will make on average around $58,000 a year.
2. Debt load: The average debt for a graduating veterinarian is around $218,000. With a 10-year repayment schedule, that equates to around $3,000 a month.
3. Burnout: Long work hours, strenuous work, and unpredictable schedules have driven many large animal veterinarians from the field. Instead, many are opting to find work in small animal practices that offer a fixed schedule, a less physically demanding environment, and more compensation.
4. Retirements: Almost 40 percent of the large animal veterinarians in Kentucky are within 10 years of retirement.
Debbie Reed, DVM, MPH, assistant professor of veterinary medicine and director of Breathitt Veterinary Center at Murray State University in Hopkinsville, Ky., is a member of the working group. “First of all, I personally believe we need to be discussing rural practices.
“In rural areas, I believe veterinary practices need to be able to serve the entire community,” she said. “Food animals and companion animals both are important to the inhabitants of the area. I think salaries and debt load are interconnected. With a monthly student loan payment often greater than a house payment, it requires a larger salary to live.
“It is difficult for a rural practice to bring in enough business to sustain the large student debt payments,” she added. “Many rural inhabitants do not have the disposable income of their urban or suburban cousins. As livestock farms become larger (due primarily to economics), it is more difficult for the rural veterinarian to keep enough clients in a reasonable driving distance.”
She said, “A rural veterinary practice must work hard to sustain their investment in education, bricks and mortar, and equipment, which brings about the third item on the shortage list: burnout.
“For a solo practitioner, the telephone is a friend and worst enemy,” she said. “It can and does ring 24 hours a day. I’ve been there. I spent 18 years as a solo practitioner in rural east Kentucky. You feel such an obligation to clients, many of whom over time become solid friends and more family than clients. As a community veterinarian, you want people to be able to trust you, know that they can count on you, and you will be there for them and their animals.
“As a wife and mother, your family also needs to know you will be there for them, and they can count on you,” she added. “It is a very tough balancing act. It requires a family structure that is flexible, forgiving and resilient, and clients that are flexible, understanding, and willing child care participants.”
She said, “To the young women who are now practicing full-time and are raising children – I salute you. The young fathers who are veterinarians are picking up more child-raising duties than did their fathers, and I am so proud of them as well. You have my utmost respect.
“Burnout is almost a fact in these situations and those veterinarians who are strong enough to avoid it are the exception rather than the rule,” she added.
Possible solutions discussed included changes to current loan programs, and incentives programs to encourage and recruit graduating veterinarians to enter into large animal practices in a rural or underserved area.
In addition, the group also discussed developing programs to introduce young people to opportunities as a veterinarian early in their education through organizations such as 4-H, FFA; career tracks in schools; and reviewing the criteria for admittance to veterinarian schools to see if changes might identify individuals more likely to choose this area of veterinary careers.
Reed said she would like to see incentive programs to recruit graduating veterinarians into rural areas.
“However, simply putting dollars in a vet’s pocket does not solve the entire problem,” she said. “When a new vet becomes involved in local activities, they are less likely to pick up and leave when their recruitment incentive is finished,” she added. “I believe community involvement is absolutely critical to keeping a veterinarian in a rural area.”
She added, “Those of us who are veterinarians need to identify kids who would make good rural veterinarians early, and encourage them.”