Public health experts in the US are ringing alarm bells over a looming shortage of farm animal veterinarians. The shortage is arising at a time of continued outbreaks among animals potentially endangering human health and risking the nation's food supply, they warn.
At the moment though, the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates the shortage at a relatively small 4 percent. But the point is even the small gap increases the potential for diseases to go undetected.
"It's not like the other 96 percent can pick up the slack," said Dr. Lyle Vogel, director of the animal welfare division at the association, which used surveys to estimate the shortage. "Because of the distances and workload of the remaining veterinarians they just can't fill in that shortage."
Concerns have centered on more than 800 diseases that can spread from animals to humans, such as salmonella and E.coli. Experts also fear an inability to quickly diagnose conditions like foot and mouth disease and avian flu, said Robin Schoen, director of the Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources at the National Academy of Sciences.
"We're kind of weakening the whole system," Schoen said. "The veterinarian is the front line."
With fewer veterinarians, more duties are falling to farmers and ranchers, who often vaccinate animals, diagnose illnesses and administer antibiotics. Vets typically offer some training and do-it-yourself medicine can cut costs, but some worry that the long-term result will be an inability to detect diseases early or address outbreaks, especially in remote areas.
Experts said the veterinarian shortage could lead to several troubling scenarios:
» Salmonella in an untreated dairy herd could be spread by workers who come into contact with feces. Similarly, people who defeather or slaughter chickens infected with a certain strain of avian flu could get others sick.
» Diseases like anthrax are hard to detect and spread quickly, so a farmer likely wouldn't notice an illness until many animals were sick, potentially wiping out a whole herd.
» Foot and mouth disease could enter the United States through imported animals or meat. Because the disease can spread rapidly by air, it could hit multiple producers if not detected, leading to a regional outbreak.
The shortage is blamed on graduates of veterinary schools who opt for the regular hours and assumed better pay of small animal medicine, though surveys indicate the pay difference is largely unfounded. There is no denying, however, that working with food animals can mean days and nights of messy, back-breaking work.
Two years ago, a writer had wondered, "who can blame young vets for eschewing the helter-skelter, jack-of-all-trades pace needed to make a living in the country. Life becomes a lot easier (and more lucrative) for those who can settle in pet-rich suburbia or concentrate their efforts in specialized practices.
And while the path that vet medicine as an institution appears to be taking may leave many ranchers high and dry, there's more to the story. With increased concern about the emerging issues of bio-security and agro-terrorism, the fear is livestock-producing states may become less capable in early detection of animal diseases."
Even at that time it was warned that the shortage was expected to worsen in light of the national trend toward a higher vet school enrollment of city kids compared to students with livestock experience.
"It wasn't too many years ago that most of our students grew up on dairy farms, lived in small towns, and came to veterinary school to be dairy veterinarians, or food animal veterinarians, and then went back to those small towns," said an official of the Minnesota university had said.
"Now it's more likely our students will come from Bloomington, Edina or Plymouth, and they're usually female, and they're often interested in small animal veterinarian medicine rather than food animal veterinarian medicine."
Existing practitioners are retiring and replacement is not taking place at the same pace. And whoever opts for veterinarian medicine chooses the small animal stream.
"It's the diagnostics -- the testing you can do, the hospitalization that we end up doing with the patients, and the treatment advances they keep coming up with. It's very interesting," a small vet points out. The work is indoors and the hours are consistent. The pay is better too.
Food animal vets acknowledge many would rather work in a clinic than travel gravel roads, slop through slush and jostle with 500-pound cattle.
Veterinary schools try to attract students to food animal practices through promises of debt relief and programs that acquaint them with rural communities, but it's a hard sell.
The shortage has prompted the National Academy of Sciences to begin an 18-month study in March to identify gaps in veterinary care and look for ways to coordinate resources.