Vermont faces large animal vet shortage

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(Host) If you own sheep, horses or cattle, you may have noticed that it takes longer to get medical help for your animals – if you can get emergency veterinary service at all.

In Vermont and other rural parts of the country, there is a growing shortage of large animal doctors. Public health experts say it’s a problem that could impact all of us.

VPR’s Nina Keck has more.

(Keck) About 2,500 students graduate from U.S. veterinary schools each year, but fewer than 10% of them go into large animal medicine.

Dr. Stephen Major owns the Green Mountain Bovine and Equine Clinic, just outside Brattleboro, in West Chesterfield, New Hampshire.

He says the shortage is due in part to the disappearance of small farms, which has made it harder for vets to earn a living.

(Major) “A lot of the mountainous areas, whether it’s New Hampshire or Vermont, do not have enough farms or big enough farms to justify regular scheduled work, and so the number of veterinarians decreases. Yet there are still many back yard animals that there is nobody who is willing to come that far into the hills or across the mountains from the other side to service.”

(Keck) The problem is exacerbated, he says because many large animal providers are nearing retirement. He says he hears over and over again how difficult it is to find young vets willing to join or take over a practice.

Middlebury veterinarian Mary O’Donovan graduated three years ago. On this particular afternoon, she’s in Chittenden filing the teeth of a large brown mare.

O’Donovan thinks money and lifestyle are the main reasons there’s a shortage of large animal veterinarians.

Income varies depending on where you live. But in Vermont, the starting salary for a large animal doctor is around $50,000 a year.

O’Donovan says small animal veterinarians don’t have to drive from patient to patient and so can schedule more appointments per day. That gives them greater earning potential, which she says is a big deal, considering the cost of education.

(O’Donovan) “My debt load wasn’t too bad because I had established residency in Colorado. But I walked out of vet school with $65,000 in debt and that’s not bad compared to a lot of my classmates who left with around 120.”

(Keck) Large animal practices typically handle more emergency work, which makes schedules unpredictable. There’s also greater risk of injury.

(O’Donovan) “Maybe that’s why veterinarians aren’t as attracted to large animals ‘cuz you go out to a farm and there are times when I’m wrestling a 1,200 pound Holstein. And it’s not pretty and I can’t always get it done. There are times when it’s like, `Well, I went and no one was there and I couldn’t catch the cow’ And that’s my story. (laughs) So, that’s hard. You know, how can you provide a service and how can you make money – that was my time, that was everything.”

(Keck) While the shortage of rural veterinarians may cause animal owners to wait longer for care, Stephen Major says he’s concerned about what would happen if there was an outbreak of a serious animal-borne illness such as mad cow or foot and mouth disease.

(Major) “We certainly are understaffed if we were to have something like the recent foot and mouth outbreak in Britain. We just don’t have enough veterinarians here to deal with that sort of situation.”

(Keck) Dr. Lyle Vogel of the American Veterinary Medical Association says people don’t realize how vital veterinarians are for public health – to examine food animals all the way from the barn to the plate.

(Vogel) “So if there’s not an adequate number of vets to oversee those areas, there is a concern that our food safety and food security may be compromised in the future.”

(Keck) Vogel says the federal government has made hiring more food animal veterinarians a priority.

But the supply is not keeping up with demand. Vogel says veterinary schools need to reach out more to rural applicants, who have experience with large animals.

He says lawmakers did pass legislation to provide debt relief to large animal veterinarians who work in underserved areas. Unfortunately, he says, the law was never funded.

For VPR News, I’m Nina Keck.

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