Every year, our family makes a southern trek to East Texas from Madison, Wisconsin, specifically to visit the small town of Coldspring where my mother-in-law lives. Because we drive, our two dogs also make the journey which adds another layer of chaotic fun to the trip. This past year, one of our dogs contracted a UTI shortly after we arrived, so I found myself at the mixed veterinary practice in Coldspring several days into our visit. While my wait was long (3+ hours) I was thankful that this small practice allowed walk-in/same day appointments. My dog got her antibiotics and her UTI cleared up without any issues.
Spending all that time in the small waiting room allowed me to observe the interesting cross-section of animal lovers and their pets that rely on veterinary care in rural and remote areas of the country. From young puppies with scheduled wellness check-ups, to cats in need of allergy treatments, to two old dogs who sadly went into one of the two exam rooms and never came out, the pace of client visits never slowed.
The Coldspring Veterinary Clinic has just one veterinarian – Dr. Merry Holmes Vann. While she has help from a capable office staff and a cadre of vet techs, Vann alone makes the major decisions for animal treatment while also offering counsel and advice to a wide range of clients. On this day, Dr. Vann saw only dogs and cats inside the clinic, but out back, a paddock held several cows, a goat, and a sheep, illustrating the reliance of the region’s farmers on her veterinary practice as well.
As I drove back to my mother-in-law’s home, about five miles out of town, I pondered what the future might hold for the Coldspring Veterinary Clinic. With just one veterinarian to serve the entire community, questions of sustainability and succession come up quickly. When Dr. Vann inevitably decides to retire, will there be a younger veterinarian there to take over her practice? If not, how far will her current clients have to drive to receive care?
A Crisis in Veterinary Medicine
Nationwide, it’s no secret that the state of veterinary medicine is in crisis. During the pandemic, pet ownership increased dramatically as pervasive loneliness led people to adopt dogs and cats and unprecedented rates. This in turn drove up demand for veterinary care.
More attention in recent years has been focused on the many stressors veterinarians face in their industry. High debt loads (routinely in the six figures) upon graduation from vet school, pay that is often not reflective of their specialized training, long hours on the job, and the sometimes emotionally fraught relationship veterinarians have with animal owners, all coalesce to result in a concerning decline in the number of young people who want to pursue veterinary medicine.
This is only compounded by alarmingly high suicide rates in the field. According to American Medical Veterinary Association (AMVA) statistics, one in six veterinarians have contemplated suicide. A report released in 2020 by the AMVA in partnership with Merck Animal Health, found that veterinarians are 2.7 times more likely than the general public to die by suicide.
In rural America, the veterinarian shortage is intensified by unique challenges that include lower pay than urban counterparts, demanding work schedules not conducive to work/life balance, and a lack of mentorship opportunities. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the dearth of rural veterinarians is at an all-time high, with 500 counties across 46 states reporting critical shortages. Moreover, recent graduates are generally more attracted to working in companion animal practices (dogs, cats, and other small animals) because the pay is better, the hours more predictable, and the working conditions less dangerous. Graduation statistics published in 2022 showed that fewer than 3% of new veterinarians chose to work exclusively with food animals (i.e. livestock) while nearly half choose to work exclusively with companion animals. The consequences of less veterinarians going into large-animal practice have implications far beyond rural America.
Beyond making farm calls for more routine emergencies like aiding in the delivery of a breech calf or treating a horse for Colic (a common gastrointestinal condition in horses), large animal veterinarians are often the first line of defense in keeping a nation’s food supply safe. They inspect animals that eventually enter the food chain and engage in surveillance work that guards against outbreaks of disease. As climate change increases the risk of animal-to-human disease transmission, this role for large veterinarians has taken on even greater importance. For instance, in 2017, veterinarians detected a rare case of Mad Cow Disease in an 11-year old beef cow during a routine inspection of a livestock market in Alabama. Subsequently, they prevented that animal from entering the food supply.
Solutions for Veterinary Shortage Areas
Meanwhile, on television the rural veterinary practice has become a mainstay of cable. Shows like “The Incredible Dr. Pol,” “Heartland Docs,” and “Critter Fixers: Country Vets” expose viewers to the challenges, diversity, and inherent drama of the mixed animal veterinary practice in rural settings. While these programs have their critics, they provide an important window into the day-to-day struggles and triumphs of what can be a grueling profession.
Although positive representations in popular culture are appreciated by the veterinary industry, actual solutions to the rural vet shortage need to be more widely implemented. The 2023 Farm Bill offers some opportunities to get the ball rolling. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi has become one of the more outspoken politicians questioning the effectiveness of the USDA’s Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program. The program will pay up to $25,000 each year for three years toward qualified educational loans of eligible veterinarians who agree to serve in a veterinarian shortage area. Hyde-Smith is the co-sponsor of the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Enhancement Act which would abolish a federal withholding tax on those loan repayment funds. Incidentally, Mississippi has one of the most significant shortages of rural veterinarians in the country.
Recruitment of young people into the profession also needs to be a more pronounced part of the conversation. Increased funding for agricultural education in high schools, along with making more federal and state resources available to 4-H and FFA youth programs could lay important groundwork for simply exposing children and teens to a range of ag industry professions that also include veterinary science.
In the end, the rural veterinarian shortage is a complex problem that demands a wide array of solutions. Support in the form of loan forgiveness, mental health resources for practicing vets, economic incentives, mentorship opportunities, and community outreach are all viable strategies that can and should be on the table for policy makers as they consider the future and sustainability of our rural communities.
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