For veterinarians, the big money to be made these days is in treating poodles and kittens, not pigs and cattle. But pet owners could ultimately be asked to pay for combating the growing shortage of rural veterinarians trained in the health and welfare of livestock.
The U.S. Census Bureau anticipates a possible national shortage of 15,000 veterinarians by 2025, with the bulk of those to be needed in rural areas. And the solution isn’t an easy one.
Becoming a vet today is “extremely expensive” amid rising tuition rates and limited state funding for veterinary colleges, according to Ericka Yeley, a University of Illinois graduate and veterinarian with Marshall’s Animal Care Clinic in Clark County.
When the clinic’s chief veterinarian, R. Victor Boyer, graduated veterinary school in the late 1960s, he had less than a few thousand dollars’ worth of college debt. The average vet these days faces more than $100,000 in post-graduation obligations, and growth in tuition has outpaced increases in practitioner earnings.
“The job opportunities that pay more are the ones in the cities, doing small animal work,” Yeley explains. “There are large animal jobs out there, but the hours are longer, you’re on emergency calls and you have to work harder for the same amount of money you’d get working in the suburbs of Chicago on dogs and cats.”
Yeley, who works on both large and small animals, adds, “A lot of our cow-calf operations are smaller operations that feed into the big beef feedlots. We need vets in the rural areas who can service those operations and to take care of our food supply. The agriculture sector drives not only the jobs of the farmers – it drives a large segment of the economy. As there are fewer vets that have to travel over larger distances, costs go up dramatically.”
Encouraging development of “mixed” practices – those that can cater to both pet owners and livestock producers – is key to ensuring services to small communities and farmers, while providing a viable income for rural vets, says Yeley, who thinks treating both small and large animals is a “blast.”
Yeley, the daughter of a dentist and a nurse, received a professional leg up through the Illinois Farm Bureau Illinois Veterinary Education and Training (IVET) program. The program offers up to $20,000 in interest-free loans for “food animal” vet students at the U of I College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM).
Today, the nation’s 28 veterinary colleges collectively graduate only 2,500 board-certified veterinarians each year, and CVM Dean Herbert Whiteley reports that U of I’s class size is “maxed out” at an average 120 students.
“The number of grads we’ve produced every year has been static over the last 10 or 15 years,” Whitely says. “There have been no new schools, and class sizes have remained fairly stable.”
He and others support congressional legislationthat would create a competitive grant program to expand capacity and services at veterinary schools. New funding could help U of I enlarge teaching and diagnostic labs, classrooms, lecture halls and clinical facilities.
Congressional proposals also would enable vet programs to focus more closely on issues such as livestock disease control, food safety and bioterrorism. Concerns about “zoonotic” diseases such as BSE (“mad cow” disease) avian influenza (“bird flu”), and H1N1 (“swine flu”) – which affect both humans and animals – have underlined the importance of a strong veterinary workforce.
“We’ve seen several outbreaks happen in Great Britain that really hurt their agriculture,” Yeley says. “With the way we transport animals cross-country constantly, a small outbreak can turn into a large outbreak very quickly. Not having large-animal vets to respond quickly to something like that could be a big disaster.”
Beyond just treating animals, Yeley says that veterinarians help educate the public on disease, animal care and food safety.
“Even misinformation that a disease can be spread through meat can cause problems,” Yeley explains. “Large animal vets can be out there helping the public to become aware.”