James Herriot, we need you


How would you like to be a doctor with 37,000 patients? If you're the lone veterinarian in Washington's Adams County who treats food animals, that's how many cows, sheep and pigs await your attention. A fall 2007 survey showed that many counties don't have even a single vet trained to treat livestock. Three-quarters of newly-trained vets specialize in companion animals (dogs and cats), and the few practicing large-animal vets are starting to retire in droves.

The shortage is most acute in Midwestern farm states, but every Western state except Wyoming has at least one county with more than 5,000 food animals and zero large-animal vets. New Mexico and Montana are worst off, with at least five counties that have more than 25,000 food animals and no vets.  And that's risky for public health and for food safety, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office. The Billings Gazette reports:

In February, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that vet shortages in key public- health areas like the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service had been ignored and that a graying federal work force was about to make matters worse. FSIS is the agency charged with preventing diseased animals from being slaughtered and packaged for sale.

... The GAO concluded that federal food safety agencies didn't know if they had enough veterinarians to handle a major disease outbreak like bird flu with potentially fatal consequences for people. It was recommended in 2004 that agencies assess their preparedness for an animal disease disaster. None had done so by the 2009 report.

So, if you've ever wanted to make less than $40,000 a year, work 60 hours a week, drive 50 miles between clients, and learn new uses for Ajax dish soap and tree-trimming shears, food-supply veterinary medicine could be for you. But the mere thought of such work makes most of us bless our desk jobs -- even as we fear the next outbreak of mad cow disease.

The loss of country vets
Ed Quillen
Ed Quillen
Apr 02, 2009 05:18 PM
    The growing scarcity of large-animal veterinarians could be bad news for mere pet-owners like me.
    Since I'm something of a cheapskate, I much prefer the country horse doc. He patches up our (castrated) tomcat after fights, provides the rabies shots, treats the dog after a close encounter with a rattlesnake -- and does it all quickly and affordably, without a lot of nonsense about the critter's inner sense of well-being or the necessity for a full check-up every three months.
    The New Age sensitive practitioner, on the other hand, insists on a full checkup, from weighing to thermometer to a glance down the throat, every time a pet comes in for something routine like a rabies shot. There are lots of questions about how the animal feels. And there's a lot more on the bill.
    And it's really hard to argue with these vets. We have some quasi-feral cats. We managed to catch them and get them neutered, but alas, that terrifying experience wasn't enough to provoke them into moving into somebody else's shed. We'd like to get them some booster rabies shots -- but the New Age vet (our regular vet was on vacation when we called) says they should get full checkups, at about $100 a head, or she won't give them their $20 rabies shots, which is all we want.
    Often I run across people who've just spent thousands on something like hip surgery for an old dog. People like that keep the New Age vets in business, and the prospect of such an enhanced income -- earned indoors during regular hours, as opposed to pulling a calf at 2 a.m. while the wind howls -- doubtless inspires veterinary students to take the easier career path.
    I cherish my dog, too, but if his vet bill were to get anywhere close to four figures, I'd tell the vet is was time to put him down.
    So I blame rich doting pet owners who have moved into rural areas for the decline in large-animal vets. Before those People of Money arrived, all we had in the boondocks was large-animal vets, and they also took good care of our dogs and cats.