Interest in large animal vet med lower, but demand remains high
By Courtney Dickerson
Photo by Liz Shelton
Jayman Geyman, who earned a doctor of veterinary medicine degree from Purdue in 2008, takes a break during a long day of pregnancy checking beef cattle.
When Earl Messmer needs a veterinarian for one of his prize-winning Jersey cows, there is a good chance he will not be able to get one. Messmer, just like many other livestock producers, lives in a county where there are no large animal veterinarians willing to make farm calls.
"My cattle are my livelihood, and when they are sick and need more professional medical care than I can give them, I have to be able to call someone who can be here in a reasonable amount of time," Messmer said. "Sick animals entering the food chain are a problem for everyone."
"A shortage of large animal — especially food animal — veterinarians could have a negative effect on our food supply," said Mark Hilton, Purdue veterinarian and clinical professor of food and animal production medicine. "If animals do not receive adequate veterinary care due to an inadequate number of herd health food animal veterinarians, disease in these animals could be more widespread than it would be if adequate numbers of veterinarians were available."
Veterinary school enrollment trends indicate that fewer students with large animal ambitions are getting the veterinary training spots in universities. As generations of large animal veterinarians retire, there are fewer profesionals to take their places.
Students interested in veterinary medicine usually have their minds made up at an early age, and they are usually committed to a small animal practice — cats, dogs and other pets — before they get to college.
"When polled, the average vet school senior said that they determined they wanted to be a vet by the age of 12," Hilton said. "Most of the time, they do not change their minds after being admitted to vet school."
Hilton and others give many reasons for the lower interest in large animal training. Many students simply do not want the long hours and manual labor involved with making farm calls. Most first year veterinarians come out of college with huge debts, and small animal practices usually offer quicker financial gains with less out-of-pocket risk.
With fewer veterinarians available, many livestock producers have adapted by learning how to perform herd health maintenance themselves. Still, they need the professional advice of trained veterinarians for emergencies and problems they can't solve.
"We are a second set of eyes for the producers, and can help prevent problems before they occur," Hilton said.
Preventing problems is necessary not just to protect a farmer's investment in livestock, it also helps ensure food safety, Hilton said. "If we have reduced numbers of veterinarians in these roles, our status of having the safest food supply in the world could be jeopardized," said Hilton.
The Purdue School of Veterinary Medicine is aware of the shortage of large animal veterinarians and takes special note of students who are applying to vet school and want to work with large animals.
"During the application and interview process, Purdue faculty want to be sure to have a diversified class as we know that is best for their learning environment," Hilton said. "When we receive an application from a student with food animal experience and interest, we make a note of that fact."
Large animal veterinarians require a different attitude than other vets. "Rural vets must be people-oriented and dedicated to working with solid, salt-of-the-earth people," Hilton said.
Hilton enjoys the large animal field and believes that veterinarians still play a vital role in the lives of farmers and ranchers. He said he often tells his students that they do not know everything after they graduate, and that they must learn from producers and always keep their eyes and minds open.