Rural large animal veterinarian shortage on the horizon: report

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The number of vets working in companion animal practices increased from 65% to nearly 70% from 2015 to 2020.

High educational debt, lower potential earnings and a lack of support are contributing to the shortage of large animal veterinarians in the U.S., according to a new report. The consequences  of this shortfall could be serious not only for livestock and farmers, but rural communities and people at large.

“The decline in food animal veterinarians in rural areas heightens concerns for a number of risks, including food safety threats, animal disease outbreaks, the potential passing of animal diseases to human populations, and decreasing rural economic growth,” said Clinton Neill, author of the report and assistant professor in veterinary economics at Cornell Center of Veterinary Business and Entrepreneurship.

 “In essence, veterinarians protect the whole of the human and animal population, so it is critical that we have a strong pipeline of practitioners to work in rural areas,” he said.

Problems

The number of veterinary students graduating hasn’t changed much in the past few years, nor has the rate at which people go into large animal medicine, but what has changed is the type of people who become veterinarians and the job itself, according to the report titled, “Addressing the Persistent Shortage of Food Animal Veterinarians and Its Impact on Rural Communities.

About 3-4% of new veterinary graduates entering the workforce go into a food-animal related practice, the report said. Food animal veterinarians, commonly called large animal vets, care for animals used in the food supply chain, like cows, hogs, poultry and small ruminants.

That number has stayed level for more than 20 years, but it won’t be enough to replace veterinarians as they retire or leave the industry. Food animal veterinarians make up about 5% of all veterinarians in the U.S. This is in stark contrast to 40 years ago, when about 40% of veterinarians focused on food animal veterinary medicine.

Food animal veterinarians are overwhelmingly white, male and over the age of 50. However, veterinarians entering the industry now are overwhelmingly female and are coming from urban and suburban areas. About 20% of the American Veterinary Medical Association members who graduated from 2010-2019 were men, the report found. The number of women owning veterinary practices also jumped up 12% in the last decade, according to the AVMA.

More people own pets, and people are demanding “more frequent and higher levels of care” for their pets, according to the report. Household spending on veterinary care climbed nearly 5% from 2020 to 2022, according to the AVMA. 

That makes it more economically advantageous to join or start a companion animal practice. The number of vets working in companion animal practices increased from 65% to nearly 70% from 2015 to 2020. 

Money matters

Veterinarians entering the workforce have to follow the money considering the massive amount of debt most of them have to take on just to get into the industry. Veterinary school graduates leave school with an average of $188,000 in educational debt. The average income for veterinarians entering the workforce ranges from $84,000 to $110,000.

Veterinarians working with cattle have a particularly hard time paying off debt, according to the report. It found that about half of bovine veterinarians still have unpaid educational debt 29 years after graduating. 

The number of rural vet clinics fell by 1% in the last decade, and it can be hard to start a new one when economic opportunities are limited, the report said. The average sales volume for rural veterinary practices was about $461,500 in 2020, compared with $734,000 for an urban vet practice.

This comes at a time when more livestock producers are going to need to build relationships with veterinarians. Beginning in June 2023, farmers won’t be able to buy over-the-counter antibiotics for their animals, due to a change in Food and Drug Administration guidance. Farmers will need a veterinary-client-patient relationship in order to get those drugs. 

The solutions

There needs to be better debt repayment programs, more business support programs and a stronger pipeline of veterinary students to get more large animal vets working in rural areas.

There are already two federal programs aimed at boosting the number of veterinarians that go into food animal practice. The U.S.Department of Agriculture’s Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program pays back part of student loans for veterinarians that practice in a designated shortage area. Recipients accepted into the program can get up to $25,000 each year for three years. 

The program, created in 2003, has never been adequately funded, according to the report, and it’s been messy in its execution.

The Veterinary Services Grant Program focuses on expanding training opportunities and subsidizing overhead costs for rural practices. While these are good things for the industry as a whole, they don’t directly support the goal of increasing the number of rural large animal vets.

The report recommends funding the federal loan repayment program better, increasing individual payouts, making the funds available tax free and expanding eligibility. Because owning practices has been shown to be the quickest way for veterinarians to pay off student loan debt, the Veterinary Services Grant Program should be expanded to help establish rural and food animal practices.

There also needs to be more incentive to encourage rural students to pursue food animal veterinary medicine. The report found that vets mostly end up practicing around where they grew up. Funding programs to increase awareness about rural veterinary careers in elementary and secondary schools or in FFA or 4-H programs could increase interest and applications, or increase the availability of scholarships and fellowships to offset post-secondary school costs.

“Considering most veterinarians choose to pursue the career before they enter college, focusing on the recruitment of high school students is key to increasing future interest in the area of rural and food animal veterinary medicine,” the report said. 

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at rachel@farmanddairy.com or 724-201-1544.)

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Rachel is Farm and Dairy's editor and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County, where she co-manages the family farm raising beef cattle and sheep with her husband and in-laws. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts. She can be reached at rachel@farmanddairy.com or 724-201-1544.

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