Large animal vets scarce

In 2006, only six of 82 veterinary graduates went into large animal practice.

Allison Wickler

Minnesota’s large animal farmers might need to worry about their animals’ future healthcare.

The number of large animal veterinarian graduates is declining, according to enrollment statistics at the University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, even as the number of the college’s graduates increases.

In 2006, only six of 82 graduates went into large animal practice, while 31 went into small-animal practice. The remaining graduates have internships, are looking for jobs, or went into different fields.

The number has fallen from 1990, when 17 students went into large animal practice.

Professor of dairy veterinary medicine, John Fetrow, cited several factors contributing to the decline in interest.

Economic pressures on farmers can leave less money to spend on veterinary care, he said.

As a result, food animal veterinary medicine – designed specifically for animals that provide food – is beginning to focus on preventative programs. The field focuses on maintaining herd health rather than dealing with individual illnesses or injuries.

Fetrow said today fewer students are growing up in rural communities, so working in rural areas might not seem appealing.

Bethany Lovaas, a beef cow and calf management veterinarian with the Minnesota Beef Research and Education team, noticed that she has had to drive farther to jobs as the number of veterinarians declines.

And because of the shortage, farmers have to handle some medical issues themselves.

“People will spend $600 on their dog at the drop of a hat,” she said, “but you won’t find people that will spend that on a sick calf.”

Larry Bjorklund, director of admissions and student affairs at the College of Veterinary Medicine, said in the midst of the decline, the University has one of the stronger food animal programs, while other colleges struggle with enrollment.

“Other schools are having a very difficult time attempting to maintain a program,” he said.

But the University is trying to reverse the declining numbers.

Three years ago the University implemented the Veterinary Food Animal Scholars Program, or VetFAST, an early admission program to attract more students into food animal veterinary medicine.

As first-year undergraduates, students can apply to VetFAST. If accepted, they can begin veterinary school classes during their fourth year, rather than waiting to first receive a bachelor’s degree.

However, first-year equine veterinary student Genevieve Bergman said she didn’t apply to the VetFAST program because she wanted to get her bachelor’s degree.

“It worked well for me,” she said. “I worked for two years before going to vet school.”

Bergman said working with large animals in sometimes harsh outdoor conditions could deter people from wanting to go into the field.

“It’s not a glamorous job,” she said.

At the national level, President George W. Bush signed the National Veterinary Medical Service Act in 2003, through which the Department of Agriculture can provide student loan repayments to recent veterinary graduates who agree to work in rural communities.

There are some students who enjoy the large animal field.

Eb Ballinger, a first-year veterinary student in large animal medicine, gained interest in the field after growing up on a dairy farm and having family members who attended veterinary school.

He said he will probably work on larger dairy farms, which tend to support veterinary care better than smaller farms.

“It’s kind of the way the industry is going,” he said.

Fetrow said large animal veterinarians are necessary to the food animal industry, and that the industries need to be aware of the changing dynamics of veterinary medicine.

“They might find themselves at the end of the phone, and there may not be a veterinarian at the other end,” he said.