Farm vet career losing appeal among students
Veterinary studies show most grads are opting to treat pets
PROSSER, Wash. – Robert Thonney grew up on a small cattle ranch in Prosser, spending his childhood showing steers and cows at 4-H fairs.
Now a first-year veterinary student at Washington State University, Thonney, 21, attributes his career choice to his upbringing.
“I intend to be a food-animal veterinarian,” Thonney said. “I have a passion for helping farm animals and the people who produce the food we eat.”
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, people like Thonney are getting harder to find.
In a recent survey, the association found only 2 percent of veterinary school students in the 2010 graduating class planned to work mostly with large, non-pet animals. Another 7 percent intend to work with all types of animals.
To many industry experts, the survey proves what they’ve known for years: The nation’s supply of farm-animal veterinarians is dropping. Unless students are given monetary incentives to specialize in farm animals, some worry about whether there will be enough veterinarians to protect the country’s food supply – such as in rural communities throughout the Yakima and Kittitas valleys.
“It certainly is an issue that is a concern to everybody, and certainly to the cattlemen,” said Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association in Ellensburg. “But I certainly wouldn’t raise the red flag yet.”
Large-animal vets make less money
Large-animal vets inspect livestock at ranches and slaughterhouses, diagnosing diseases that can be transferred from animals to humans. Field maintains the U.S. has high safety standards and enough veterinarians to meet existing needs.
But he doesn’t dispute that this could change. He even understands why. According to a 2008 survey by the AVMA, large-animal vets earn an average of $57,745 a year, compared with $64,744 earned by small-animal vets.
So when students graduate with a debt averaging $130,000 or more, Field said they will naturally choose jobs that are more profitable. On top of that, small-animal veterinarians work indoors and have relatively stable office hours. Farm vets don’t.
“They can work with small animals in a climate-controlled office or lay on their belly in a snowbank to work on a cow,” he said. “It’s a much more variable situation.”
These concerns are echoed by Dr. Leonard Eldridge, Washington state veterinarian with the state Department of Agriculture in Olympia. Eldridge said there are federal programs designed to help draw vets to rural areas, but those opportunities are few and far between.
According to the United States Health Association, there are 85,000 practicing veterinarians in the U.S. Of these, only 8,850 work in food-supply medicine and fewer than 4,000 are in public veterinary practice.
Eldridge, who had his own large-animal practice for 40 years, said, “To me, it’s the young person’s game and there aren’t a lot of them going in. As people get older, we eventually will fall out of the work force.”
Data gathered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture show the large-animal vet world is aging. Half of farm-animal vets are older than 50, and only 4.4 percent are younger than 30.
The Washington State Veterinary Medical Association, based in Snoqualmie, does not track the age of its 1,600-plus members.
City life attracts pet vets
Doug Jasmer, professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at WSU, said there’s clearly a need for large-animal vets, but whether there’s a shortage is less clear.
“It is very difficult from caseload basis to survive in rural areas,” he said, noting that there are more job opportunities in urban communities. “We need good data that we can fall back on to look at the issue, and we don’t have it.”
About 100 students are enrolled in WSU’s program each year, more than half of whom are from Washington, Jasmer said. He maintains these students represent a broad range of interests and can cover societal needs.
One such person is Dr. Sam Howard. She graduated from WSU’s vet program last year and was hired about seven months ago at Ellensburg Animal Hospital, which serves a mix of farm and pet animals.
In her graduating class, Howard, 30, said nearly all of her peers planned to work only with pets. One percent wanted to specialize in livestock, while another 4 percent – including her – wanted to do a bit of everything.
“I’m not a person who wants to sit inside all day,” she said. “The variety keeps me going. I can be looking at a horse one minute and a ferret one minute later. It’s a lot of fun.”
Having grown up on a farm in Eastern Washington, Howard said she’s comfortable with the rural lifestyle. But most people entering the field don’t want to give up the shops, restaurants and other amenities of city life, nor do they want to sacrifice on pay, she said.
“The conditions are not always ideal,” she said. “Even with the advent of Western medicine, I’ve been kicked four times this year by a sedated horse. There are much higher risks.”
Howard is not alone in believing farm-animal vets should feel a calling for their profession. But she also believes the industry would benefit from creating state and federal programs with more flexible requirements.
“It’s hard to find places that meet the criteria for these programs,” she said. “Ninety percent of what you do has to be just cows. Where can you go and make a living on that?”
Federal lawmakers are doing their part by introducing bills such as the Veterinary Services Investment Act. The legislation is aimed at recruitment, financial assistance for veterinary students and establishing and expanding accredited education programs. The bill passed the House in September and was referred to the Senate’s Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry that same month.
“Anything that could be done is certainly welcome and going in the right direction,” said Field of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association. “We have to make sure there is a way for food-animal practitioners to be profitable and viable. If they can’t make money and be in business, it’s difficult for anybody to enter the industry.”