Vet check: A look at the shortage of food animal vets


SALEM, Ohio — Recovering from a flurry of phone calls and swamped workdays — problem calvings, twisted stomachs, downed cows — Jason Marteney sees today as a welcomed break. Just a few stops on his schedule, a few scrubs of his boots and candid chats with farmers, and he’ll be home free.

The young veterinarian, just shy of four years into his career, loves his profession: the farm animals he heals and keeps healthy, the farmers he befriends and helps constantly, the businesses he impacts.

But it’s easy for him to see, too, why many of his colleagues would choose to practice medicine on Fido and FiFi rather than deal with the veterinary issues farmers face on a daily basis.

Four years of grueling days and nights to make it through veterinary school, only to come out the other end with more than $100,000 in loans, is a lot to stomach. Wouldn’t it be quicker — and cleaner — to pay that back through steady, scheduled clinical work?

Add in the daunting fear of going into an unfamiliar herd of animals that could kick or step on you, and unfamiliarity with farm lingo, and it’s no wonder becoming a dog and cat veterinarian looks more attractive.

That popular decision has left nearly every area of the U.S. with a shortage of food animal veterinarians.

* * *

Just getting accepted to vet school is difficult, Marteney said. And once you’re in, the lessons are even harder: Academics. Sacrifice. Exhaustion.

There’s not a single moment to slack in Ohio State’s four-year program, which educates students on all species’ anatomy, physiology, diseases, and systems. Mixed in is lab work, written reports, and rounds treating live animals in the school’s vet hospital.

“It’s a lot of work, a lot of information to keep straight and keep up with,” Marteney admits.

“You work all day, do your clinician reports, then go home and even though you’re exhausted, you still study for your boards because you’re nervous you won’t pass,” he said.

* * *

By the summer of 2005, with his Ohio veterinary license in hand, Marteney had offers to join three or four veterinarians.

Since he knew he wanted to be an in-field veterinarian, the next decision on his mental checklist was where.

A Carrollton native, Marteney was drawn to practice with Dan Dickerhoof, a middle-aged veterinarian whose office is his pickup truck and garage near Homeworth.

He liked the veteran vet’s friendly personality, that he treats only cattle, sheep and goats, and the geography of his established client base.

Any single day could take either veterinarian as far north as Route 224 and as far south as Jewett, to Canton in the west or Columbiana in the east. It’s a large practice area — one that’s dotted with other large animal vets who wave as they pass on the road — and a surprising number of farms of all sizes.

Some say the immediate area has somehow shielded itself from the shortage of food-animal veterinarians that’s plagued the rest of the nation.

But there are other issues in these parts. The big concern for any vet contemplating accepting a job — or choosing whether they prefer dairy cows or Dachshunds — is whether there’s still going to be a job here, whether there will be farms here, in 20 years, Marteney said.

“It doesn’t make sense to take on $100,000 in student loans if there isn’t going to be a way to repay it,” Marteney admits.

* * *

Other than a hands-on veterinarian, there are other job opportunities for grads: regulatory medicine, military or department of agriculture veterinarian, or regulatory work with the Centers for Disease Control.

All veterinary fields have looming shortages both nationally and internationally, according to David Wolfgang, veterinary and biomedical scientist at Penn State University.

Perhaps most worrisome, Wolfgang suggests, is the growing scarcity of “public-sector” veterinarians — the ones involved in the care and treatment of livestock, the eradication of threatening diseases, and the monitoring of food safety and quality with state and federal agencies.

The problem goes further than a farmer having to pull a calf himself: The shortage could jeopardize the nation’s food supply and result in diseases spreading from animals to humans.

Fewer than 80,000 veterinarians practice in the United States today, and only 15,000 are engaged in food-animal care, public practice or herd medicine.

American Veterinary Medical Association statistics show there are about 320 food-animal veterinarians practicing in Pennsylvania. In Ohio, there are 294. The workload exceeds them exponentially.

Some areas are so underserved that one vet is charged with caring for many more animals than may be humanly possible. For instance, in one central Pennsylvania county, there’s one veterinarian and more than 76,000 food animals.

Maybe most alarming are statistics from the AVMA that show two counties in Ohio — Adams and Richland — and one in Pennsylvania, Lycoming, have more than 25,000 head of food-producing livestock and no veterinarians based in that county to help them.

* * *

Demand for food supply veterinarians is projected to increase at least 12 percent in the next seven years, but vets coming into the profession will fall short of meeting that demand, according to the veterinary medical association.

In hard numbers, for every 100 food supply veterinary jobs available, there will be only 96 veterinarians available to fill them.

“Most people think of veterinarians as pet doctors,” said Wolfgang. “Many veterinary students are not aware of the other fields of study or specialization.”

“Companion-animal practices are generally more lucrative, which makes them more attractive to graduates who have exorbitant student loans to repay.”

* * *

All 28 of the country’s veterinary colleges are currently at or above capacity, graduating about 2,500 veterinarians annually. It’s still not enough.

Last spring, AVMA officials testified before Congress to explain the consequences of too few veterinarians.

Their ideas to get the nation past the shortage are the National Veterinary Medical Service Act and Veterinary Public Health Workforce Expansion Act.

The workforce expansion act aimed to create a 10-year, $1.5 billion competitive federal grants program to build veterinary research, diagnostic, and training capacity. The act never moved past legislative introduction and never became law.

The National Veterinary Medical Service Act, signed into law by President George Bush in 2003 and funded 2006-2008, is a loan repayment program for veterinarians who pledge to practice in a variety of underserved areas, including food supply veterinary medicine. USDA officials said their agency lacks the capability to administer the program.

* * *

A number of states and veterinary schools, Ohio and Pennsylvania included, have taken the shortage personally and put efforts into bringing supply back in line with demand.

They have enacted loan-forgiveness legislation, some as great as $20,000 per year for up to four years, in hopes of encouraging graduates to locate and remain in rural areas or in the veterinary fields where there are shortages. In return for every year of financial support, graduates provide one year of service to an area in need of veterinary care.

Organizations, too, have gotten involved. Last fall, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, through its Friends of Agriculture Foundation, established a scholarship specifically for students striving to become large animal veterinarians.

Ohio State University, which graduates about 140 students each year, took a different approach to get food-animal care front and center for undergraduates.

College of Veterinary Medicine statistics from 2005 showed that only 8 percent of that class’ graduates — 11 new veterinarians — went into food supply medicine.

The school’s new early commitment program, started this fall, lets sophomores apply directly to vet school. In return, the veterinary college reserves 10 seats for the most qualified students to enter that program after they earn their bachelor’s degrees.

* * *

Driving snow-covered roads between farm visits, Jason Marteney reflects on the veterinarian shortage, an issue he calls a multifaceted problem with no easy answer.

It’s a money issue, a schooling issue, a personal work-life balance issue.

He makes the sacrifices that mean some days he’ll leave early in the morning and won’t get home until very late. It’s just him, a cell phone, county road maps, and the hospital on wheels in the bed of his pickup until the job is finished.

It’s worth it on the easier days that let him pull into his own driveway well before a traditional desk job’s quitting time.

He wants to be able to help out at home, work on his own farm, see a movie with his wife and go to his infant daughter’s doctor visits. But he also wants to build a solid relationship with his clients and see success as often as possible.

“You get that call at midnight and you can tell they’ve done all they can do and then some before they picked up the phone to call you,” he said.

“If all goes well, it’s a very rewarding experience to help them, to see that cow that stands up, the calf that lives. That’s why you do this.”

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  1. Great article, I begin veterinary school at North Carolina State University this August, with a focus in Food-Animal medicine. I definitely appreciate the work that folks like Dr. Marteney are doing.


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