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Finally, a Pundit Proclaims a Reasonable Solution to the Food Animal Vet “Shortage”

photo 2006 Sara | more info (via: Wylio)I subscribe to the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA's) Animal Health SmartBrief. The service is available to anyone,...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Jun 9th 2011


Cow buttphoto 2006 Sara | more info (via: Wylio)
I subscribe to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA’s) Animal Health SmartBrief. The service is available to anyone, so you can subscribe, too. If you do, you will note that the Brief is the source of many of my insider veterinary stories. You also should be prepared for daily (or twice daily) inbox deluges from the service. Keeping up with the Briefs can be a challenge.

Almost every issue of the Brief links to an article bemoaning a shortage of farm vets in rural America. After veterinary school, graduates have a choice to make: they can take jobs in small animal (which is a code term for dogs and cats) medicine, or they can work in farm animal medicine.

Small animal vets can live anywhere, including vibrant urban cultural centers that tend to be attractive to young folks. They work on beloved pets who are considered family members by most of their clients. They get to use advanced technology such as ultrasound. And they generally get to work long hours for crappy pay.

Farm animal vets work even longer hours for crappy pay. They live in rural areas, which is attractive to some people but their numbers tend to be smaller. They work on animals that are destined to become steaks or hamburgers. And they pretty much spend all day, every day, with their arm buried to the shoulder in cows’ butt holes. (Actually, that is a bit of an exaggeration. Most farm vets spend a significant portion of their days in their trucks driving from one butt hole to the next.) Some farm vets do get to use advanced equipment such as ultrasound — which in cows often is performed by means of a transrectal (up-the-butt) probe.

When you look at these two job descriptions, the source of the farm vet shortage becomes pretty obvious.

Enter the pundits. Various veterinarians, congresspeople, vet school deans, and analysts have offered up some solutions to the crisis. Most of the solutions involve recruiting more vet students who express an interest in farm animal medicine. But there is a problem with this tactic: once a student is in vet school, he or she can study, and ultimately move into, any type of medicine he or she desires. If vet schools preferentially offer admission to students who plan to become farm vets, many students will lie to get into school (vet school is admissions departments are famously selective). Once they’re in school, they can switch to small animal medicine. And many students who genuinely enter vet school with the intention to work with farm animals will change their minds after a few weeks of cow butts.

On this blog in the past I have mentioned a better solution: deal with the crappy pay. Raise the price of a Big Mac by a nickel (and the price of a Ruth’s Chris steak by $5), and pay farm vets more. For half a million bucks a year, vets would be swarming to the farms in droves. It’s a tactic that’s guaranteed to solve the problem, and I frankly believe it’s the only tactic that will solve the problem.

And finally, for the first time I can remember, someone quoted in the Animal Health SmartBrief has said something similar. Gatz Riddell, executive vice president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, hasn’t gone so far as to say that farm vets should be paid five hundred grand each year, but he did say that

[t]o get veterinarians in the underserved areas, a better business or practice model may be needed. . .

We’ve got to make sure, at the end of the day, that theres a robust practice model that will allow them to make a living in a part of the country where they want to work.

It’s not quite my radical solution, but it does seem to be a step in a direction that may actually produce some results. Read more of what Dr. Riddell has to say here.

Photo: The world, as seen by a farm vet.