Snow Leopard

Snow Leopard
Snow Leopard cub (7 mos old) - Cape May County Zoo

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Shortage of Veterinarians

Most people probably associate the word "veterinarian" with a "pet vet" - someone who treats cats and dogs and small pocket pets. There are a lot of different paths that a veterinarian can take. This includes variety in the type of animals they choose to see, specialities in different fields and work in research and public health for private companies or state/federal governments.

My vision of a veterinarian was inspired by the James Herriot novels I read as a youngster. I saw a vet as someone who treated  "All Creatures Great and Small."  I grew up in suburbia so I didn't have exposure to farm animals, save for the occasional petting zoo at a fair. This is true of so many people as more of us live in the cities and suburbs and less on farms than ever before.  We have become removed from where our food really comes from and what is involved in bringing it to the table. 

It was through my experiences in Animal Science at the University of Delaware that I discovered how much I truly enjoyed working with cows, horses, sheep, goats and chickens (never got into working with pigs, I admit - likely it's the smell that literally CLINGS to even if you stand in a room with them for 2 minutes!). I did work at truly mixed animal practice for 1 1/2 yrs. My dream was to live in the country and have a little farm of my own. Well, the cost of living and having property in NJ put an end to that. 

The fact of the matter is that there is a HUGE shortage of food animal and large animal veterinarians.  This problem has been going on for quite a while and is only getting worse. According to the AVMA, the average student loan debt for a veterinary student is $120,000. In 2007, only 14% of those graduating from vet schools went into food animal medicine. 

There are a number of reasons why this has been a declining group:
1. You can make more money in pretty much any other aspect of veterinary medicine 
2. Today's graduates are predominately women. And let's face it, most women want to work on cats/dogs or even horses or go the academic route. Many of them want part time or flex time schedules to raise a family.
3. Most of those entering vet school (men too) have no exposure to farm animal medicine. I didn't know I liked it until I got some hands on experience.
4. There is a serious lack of good mentoring out there - esp in THIS area of vet medicine
5. There are definitely still some sexist attitudes among farmers/ranchers regarding a female vet. I experienced it.
Size doesn't matter. Trust me - if a 1500 lb animal wants to do something or not, being a big strong hulking man will get you NOWHERE.
6. Farm animal medicine requires long, crazy hours, in all weather, at all times of night/day
7. Many farmers/ranchers do not call you until they have tried numerous things so the animal is worse off but they often want it for a low cost. See the problem here?

What can be done?
Well, the AVMA, as well as state and federal agencies are doing a few things to address this, including loan repayments for NEW grad willing to work in those underserved areas. 
This is explained further at The AVMA Advocate

Also, I truly think getting exposed at a younger age would help. And the undergrad schools that have proposed cutting out the large animal/farm facilities to save money are doing a great disservice to anyone who could end up in this or a related animal care field. I am very grateful to the University of Delaware for giving me this chance.  Some vet schools have a tracking program - so you can choose what you want to focus on during your clinical years. This is great - esp given the volume of stuff we have to learn. However, I choose to track "mixed" (the James Herriot track in my mind). I loved my time in the large animal clinic and honestly, there are things I learned there that I apply to small animal medicine. At the risk of upsetting some, it may be be worth adding a little time to the veterinary education. They need to increase the business and economics education so why not? 

More info can be found at:
Information about Food Supply Veterinarians

USDA - Veterinary Medical Loan Repayment Program

AVMA list of State Loan Repayment Programs


  1. Here's a recent article from Georgia on this:

  2. Having a new pet brings along multiple responsibilities. Depending on the pet chosen, new owners will have to be prepare to invest a lot of time, energy and money. The maintenance of just a small animal can run up to thousands of dollars annually. Most times that cost does not even take into account the possible need for emergency veterinarian care.

    Veterinarians Dover MA