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US Facing Shortage of Large Animal Vets

  • Anna King

Americans dote on their dogs and cats, and can find all sorts of medical specialists to treat them. But that's not the case for those with cattle, horses, sheep and other livestock that need care. There is a shortage of large animal veterinarians in the United States, and experts say the shortage is projected to grow even worse. As Anna King reports, this is not just a problem for farmers and ranchers; it raises a major public health concern, as well.

Veterinarian Ernie Munck is stooped over young calves with their heads stuck in stanchions. He's giving them a standard vaccine to keep them healthy. Some of the animals aren't too fond of the idea, and let him know with bellowed complaints.

Munck works out of his truck and visits farms throughout Washington State's Yakima Valley, treating everything from colicky horses to pregnant dairy cows. He is one of a dwindling number of rural vets who doctor all creatures great and small. And some are calling that situation a crisis.

Gregory Hammer, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, notes, "The overall effect of not having a veterinarian could be overwhelming and devastating." He expects the shortage of large animal vets to grow ten-fold over the next couple of decades.

Hammer's concern is not that animals are dying. "In the long run it's the public who is going to be the one who suffers," he explains, "with unwholesome food, or foreign animal diseases that are coming into the country, or more and more foods being brought here from foreign countries."

One of the primary reasons for the shortage of large animal vets is the nature of the job. It's hard work and the hours are long.

Ernie Munck has been taking care of large animals for about 20 years in his practice. But the demand for his services grew so much he couldn't keep up. "It was like someone tightening a violin string tighter and tighter and tighter until it reaches the breaking point," he recalls. "And that is the way it was constantly."

The long hours began to take their toll. He would fall asleep in church. Munck said his friends were pulling him aside and asking him to get help or take it easy.

Finally relief came in the form of Kalie Mercer, who now works for his practice. She's one of the few large animal vets graduating from Washington State University, one of only 28 veterinary schools in the nation.

Most new veterinarians choose to treat dogs, cats and other 'companion animals.' Mercer says she knows why. There are fewer American families on farms and ranches, where dealing with large animals is part of daily life. "If you don't grow up around them, you're not comfortable around a [453 kilo] horse. I don't think there are too many people from the city coming in and saying I want to be a cow vet," she says with a rueful laugh.

Legislation was introduced in Congress that would forgive debt for students who choose to become large animal veterinarians.

While they wait for an infusion of new vets, farmers and ranchers have come up with their own solution. They are getting around the shortage by getting around vets.

Clayt Newbill is not a veterinarian. He's not even a vet technician. He's a spur-sporting cowboy who knows how to spot a sick cow. He works on a large feedlot operation. His charges: about 11,000 head of cattle. And on a farm this big, he says, there are always sick animals. "We ride every pen on the yard and make sure everything is kosher [okay]. And then pull it out if it's sick or crippled or whatever and doctor it."

Mostly the cattle get pneumonia, he says. And that can be fixed with a dose of antibiotics. Sick cows are given up to three doses of antibiotics, but no more than that. Newbill says that's all the farm can afford.

In this arrangement, the veterinarian's role is to consult. "If we are having problems with a pen or have something major going on, he will come down more than that if we need him to," Newbill explains. "But usually he just comes by once a month and checks on everything."

This will likely become more common as U.S. farms get larger and large animal veterinarians become scarcer.

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