There’s A Large-Animal Veterinarian Shortage. That’s A Big Problem

A number of factors are creating scarcity in the large-animal veterinarian field, a real concern for agriculture. A few individuals and programs propose solutions.

by Sarah Coleman
PHOTO: hedgehog94/Adobe Stock

Ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for years to come in nearly every aspect of our lives, from how we work to how we play to how we learn to how we connect with others. For many, the forced downtime was eye-opening. We reassessed how we wanted to not only spend our time, but how we wanted to live.

The inability to go to restaurants and forced meal planning at home for many families had them delving deeply into where their food comes from and who their buying power supports. Added to this was the fact that many city-dwelling folk learned that their cement walls were just that: barriers to truly living.

Thousands of people began looking for land where they could have a garden and raise some of their own food, whether in the form of eggs or meat. 

This renewed interest in self-sustainability, combined with other factors, has led to a nearly meteoric rise in the price of everything from real estate to fertilizer. Another unforeseen effect of the pandemic? The incredible interest shown in horseback riding and horse ownership. 

As one of the only activities that could continue when nearly all team sports were halted, riding schools and equine breed registries have experienced massive growth. 

This influx of new, large-animal owners, however, has brought into stark relief what many have been talking about for years. There’s a concerning shortage of large-animal veterinarians these days. 

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Factors Causing This Crisis

In years past, most owners of animals small and large were spoiled for choice when deciding on whom to bring their animal for care. They often were able to weigh things like proximity, price and personality. Keepers could choose which vet they were most comfortable with. 

Those days are truly in the past. Today, in many areas of the country, the ability to choose from multiple vets isn’t an option. The shortage of large-animal veterinarians in rural areas is reaching a crisis point. And our animals will be the ones to pay the price.

Veterinarians, vet schools and animal-health organizations such as the American Veterinary Medical Association have been sounding the alarm for years that this issue would soon reach a breaking point. 

And finally, it seems, it has. 

By 2025, the U.S. Census Bureau anticipates a possible national shortage of 15,000 veterinarians. The majority of these vets will be needed in rural areas.

If this statistic doesn’t scare you, it should. There is nothing quite as gut-wrenching as seeing an animal you have been tasked with caring for in pain, possibly for hours, as you wait for help to arrive. 

But why are so few vet school graduates interested in large-animal practice? Multiple factors play into many vets’ decision to forgo the large-animal side of vet med and also why they leave. Often cited are: 

  • pay
  • stress
  • lack of work-life balance
  • on-call requirements 

It’s important to consider that the more rural the service area, the more pressing these issues are likely to be. While vets at larger, multivet practices can often garner more pay and specific working hours, those doctors farther from medical hubs are often on call 24/7/365. They also earn lower salaries.

With few graduates interested in working in more-remote areas, it’s understandable why some practitioners feel their only way to have a better work-life balance—and all that entails—is to leave large-animal vet med entirely.

The draw to companion-animal medicine is real, offering: 

  • Better pay (The average starting salary for a large-animal vet is about half what a companion-animal vet makes; vets involved in food-animal care tend to make even less.)
  • Limited/no emergency Duty
  • Shorter work weeks

There’s no denying these perks are all enticing, specifically to female veterinarians who might be interested in starting (and spending time with) a family. 

large animal veterinarian veterinarians pig
Budimir Jevtic/Adobe Stock

Addressing Vet School Issues 

Though these factors may influence why vet students shy away from large-animal practice, there are issues at play even before vet students choose what type of practice they would like to pursue.

Veterinarian Debra Shoulders is the past president of the Kentucky Veterinary Medical Association and the owner of House Calls for Paws and Claws in Bowling Green, Kentucky. She cites the shortage of vet schools (there are only 32 in the country) and the vet school selection process as issues that compound the large-animal veterinarian crisis. 

With a finite number of “seats” in each school, a limited number of veterinarians can graduate each year. And few of the people in these seats are opting for a career in large-animal care. 

Shoulders says that the GPA often required to gain admission to vet school is a 3.8. Though this ensures that quality candidates are chosen, she notes that using this GPA as an admittance measuring stick can unintentionally prevent the perfect students from applying toor gaining admittance fromvet school: Students working on their family farms while completing undergraduate degrees. 

And these kids are truly students vet schools should be courting. Often, their on-farm work puts them ahead of their peers in regards to ability to handle large animals.

Shoulders suggests that the 3.8 GPA vet school cutoff be lowered to encourage other students to apply. Additionally, she suggests vet schools waive application fees to further encourage student applications. 

Read more: On-farm diagnostics bring veterinary care to you.

Loan Repayment Programs

Here’s a sobering statistic: As of 2021, the average vet school student graduates with $186,430 in student loans, reports the AVMA. Knowing this, it’s easier to understand why small-animal practice would be enticing to recent grads. 

For those not entrenched in large-animal veterinary medicine, it can seem that not much is being done to address the veterinarian shortage issue from a national scale. But multiple programs and initiatives have been enacted in an attempt to encourage more vets to relocate into rural areas. 

Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program

One of these is the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program. The VMLRP will pay up to $25,000 a year (for three years) toward the student loans of vets working in areas designated by the NIFA as “shortage areas.” The vet must work in the area for a minimum of three years to receive the $75,000 loan repayment. 

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (a part of the USDA) creates a Veterinarian Shortage Situations map each year. At press, only three states don’t have rural vet issues: Massachusetts, Maryland and Rhode Island, as well as the District of Columbia. (All states in blue have at least one shortage area.)

Interested veterinarians apply for the VMLRP grant. Once funding is given, he or she must secure employment in a rural clinic within 90 days. At the conclusion of three years, a vet working in a shortage area can apply for a VMLRP extension for as long as he or she has veterinary school debt. While this program doesn’t address the salary of an equine veterinarian, its use will hopefully alleviate some of the stress of mounting student-loan debt. 

However, this program has its pitfalls. Both the loan and tax payments made on the VMLRP recipient’s behalf are considered taxable income by the Internal Revenue Service. This means that this grant could increase federal taxes, and possibly state and local taxes, owed by the recipient.

To combat this possible increase, VMLRP provides supplementary funds.

Veterinary Services Grant Program

An additional financial assistance program available is the Veterinary Services Grant Program, which provides grants to entities that carry out programs or activities that develop, implement and sustain veterinary services through education, training, recruitment, placement and retention of veterinarians and vet students.

Grants are available to private practices, nonprofits and veterinary schools. They can be used to establish or expand veterinary practices. 

The AAEP is also working diligently to address the attraction and retention of equine veterinarians. A task force has been created to identify the issues in equine vet med and explore ways to alleviate them. It is hoped that honest discussion can lead to real, actionable processes.

large animal veterinarian veterinarians equine horse
standret/Adobe Stock
Credentialed Veterinary Professional Roles

The AVMA is deeply vested in determining why fewer students choose veterinary medicine and remedying the problem. One proposed solution is the implementation of two new, credentialed veterinary professional roles: One that works under a veterinarian to diagnose, prognose, prescribe and perform surgery at a limited level and a second role related to clinic management.

The goal of these new roles would be to improve efficiency and reduce workforce stress. Thus far there has been no analysis done to determine if these professional roles are needed and how they would differ from already-established roles.

Despite this, efforts to create an educational framework for these roles is ongoing. The AVMA is researching if these additional team members are needed and if they will qualitatively affect the work-life balance lacking in so many aspects of vet med.

As the industry works diligently to fix the trajectory of the vet workforce, large-animal owners and caretakers have their own role to play. Understanding there may be a possible delay in care because of overwhelming caseloads and offering compassion is just one way to show practicing vets care.

Being aware of time constraints and each vet’s right to personal time is another.

Livestock owners, veterinarians and vet med organizations must work together to address burnout in equine veterinarians. If they don’t, the animals will suffer.

Read more: Large-animal veterinarians keep farms healthy.

Addressing Vet Issues on a State Level

The shortage of large-animal veterinarians is on the radar of nearly every state. But this shortage is of particular concern for states with agricultural commodities as major drivers of their economy.

Kentucky is a prime example, with its top five agricultural endeavors, based on sales, being:

  • soybeans
  • corn
  • poultry
  • horses and other equines
  • cattle

The lack of large-animal, regulatory veterinarians in this state could directly affect the food supply chain, with too few vets to monitor the cows, pigs, chickens and other animals meant for human consumption. 

Additionally, successful disease traceability at the state level relies heavily on vets in private practice as well as those in a regulatory capacity. Regulatory vets simply cannot be everywhere at once, says Katie Flynn, the state veterinarian for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

A disease outbreak in any state is terrifying. In a state that helps feed tens of millions of people each year, the results could be catastrophic.

In June, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, the Kentucky Board of Veterinary Examiners and the Kentucky Veterinary Medical Association held a stakeholder’s dialogue on the status of large animal veterinarians. Gathering producers, leaders, educators and subject matter experts from the livestock industry, as well as the veterinary and regulatory fields, the multihour session allowed for discussion on the background of the issue as well as open dialogue on possible ways to begin alleviating the large animal vet shortage. 

Ideas that emerged from this meeting include:

  • investigation into grant funding for contract regulatory vets 
  • exploration of low-interest loans that will allow new veterinarians to buy out established practices
  • utilization of existing funds to physically build vet practices or alleviate student loan debt
  • creation of legislation that would earmark funds to pay off one year of debt per year worked in underserved Kentucky areas

Missouri is another state thinking outside the box to encourage large-animal vets to stay in state. Missouri’s main livestock commodities include cattle, poultry and hogs.

The Missouri Department of Agriculture offers the Dr. Merrill Townley Large Animal Veterinary Student Loan Program. This was established to assist students currently enrolled in or students who have been accepted into the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine. 

The loan provides $20,000 for living and educational expenses for six individuals per academic year. The loans are forgiven if the student practices large-animal vet med in a defined area of need in the state. A large-animal vet can have $20,000 forgiven for each year of service provided.

Many vets and vet clinics are looking to more-unusual ways to entice vets to large-animal, rural practice. Some collaborate with others in the area to share on-call responsibilities. Others offer signing bonuses or housing assistance. 

Veterinarian Keelan Lewis, owner of Salt Creek Veterinary Hospital in rural Olney, Texas, purposefully created a child-friendly practice to court and retain employees. In addition to allowing her staff to bring their children with them to work when needed, Lewis even purchased a nearby home and hired a nanny to care for the staff’s children while they worked at the mixed animal practice.

Though an expensive endeavor, Lewis says the return on investment is employee retention and productivity.

Though many organizations and veterinarians are working to address the issues associated with large-animal veterinary medicine, there is no silver bullet that will solve the nationwide vet shortage livestock owners are seeing. Creative approaches to addressing issues of pay, stress and work-life balance will be needed to encourage vet students to enter the large-animal vet med field. 

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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