Concerns Grow Over Shortage Of Large Animal Vets

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Farmers and ranchers across the country are complaining that there are fewer and fewer large animal veterinarians to care for their livestock. Many are retiring and new veterinary students are choosing to work with pets during office-hours rather than sick cow at three in the morning.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Turning to jobs now, there could be some great opportunities in large animal medicine. Ranchers and farmers worry about a lack of vets specializing in livestock. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, nearly 1,500 counties don't have single doctor for farm animals.

Gloria Hillard reports.

GLORIA HILLARD: On the tailgate of a dusty four-by-four, veterinarian Verne Thacker is filling three syringes. He's been a large animal veterinarian for more than 20 years and has a farmer's tan, a bronzed face, neck and forearms to prove it.

Dr. VERNE THACKER (Veterinarian): Some heifers, it's their first time being exposed to the bulls, so we just want to make sure they're vaccinated for all their reproductive diseases and respiratory diseases.

(Soundbite of gate opening)

HILLARD: From a small corral, 15 black heifers look suspiciously back at us. Now, to get a thousand-pound cow to hold still for a shot, it's just a matter of getting it from the corral into the hydraulic chute. To the reporter from the city, it sounds easy enough.

(Soundbite of whistling)

(Soundbite of cows mooing)

HILLARD: Thacker works quickly and pats a distressed cow on the flanks to calm her.

Dr. THACKER: You know, you got to like the job. You got to like working with the animals, too. And I - cattle are probably my favorite animal to work on. You know, it's cold and dirty sometimes. Sometimes it's hot and dirty. Most times it is dirty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HILLARD: As a large animal veterinarian specializing in food animal medicine, Thacker has few counterparts in this rural area about three hours north of Los Angeles. Dr. Ron DeHaven, CEO of the American Veterinary Medical Association says its vets like Thacker who are helping to ensure the nation's safe food supply.

Dr. RON DEHAVEN (CEO, American Veterinary Medical Association): The rural practitioner that's taking care of the cow-calf operation, the mamma cows that are producing the calves that ultimately become our beef. And that need is widespread, and that's where we have the biggest shortage.

HILLARD: A recent survey by the professional organization found that less than four percent of veterinary school graduates plan to work in large animal practice.

(Soundbite of sheep bleating)

HILLARD: At Pierce College in Woodland Hills, California there's a farm on campus, with sheep, cows and chickens. Dr. Lee Shapiro, an instructor with the pre-veterinary program here, says he's noticed these days, the majority of students are interested in small animal practice. And he tells them, yes.

Dr. LEE SHAPIRO (Instructor, Pre-Veterinary Program, Pierce College): You're going to have - make more money as a small animal vet. And you'll have less hours of work. And you won't get as dirty.

HILLARD: That said, to his students, nearly all of whom are from the city, Shapiro is known as Dr. Cows.

Dr. SHAPIRO: So what we're going to do today is we're going to do TPR, it's temperature, pulse and respiration. Who remembers what the temperature of a healthy sheep should be?

Unidentified Woman: 102.3.

HILLARD: Pre-vet students interested in pursuing large animal medicine may have an admissions edge when it comes to applying to veterinary school. And the American Veterinary Medical Association and others are offering financial incentives, including student loan relief. With a more than six-figure student loan debt looming, Jeffrey Glasstetter finds that intriguing.

Mr. JEFFREY GLASSTETTER: They would pay my way through veterinary school, assuming I signed that contract. But you'd be the like only veterinarian for, like, a large area living out of your truck. That's a little daunting for me.

(Soundbite of sheep bleating)

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) just put it back.

Ms. STACY CARPIO: I had no experience with animals when I came here.

HILLARD: For pre-vet student Stacy Carpio, who is holding onto a ram named Cotton, there's no question she's going to be a large animal vet. She's heard all the stories about delivering calves at three in the morning and about living in a truck and getting dirty.

Ms. CARPIO: But, you know, if you enjoy it, you do it and it's not work.

(Soundbite of ram)

Ms. CARPIO: You know...

(Soundbite of ram)

Ms. CARPIO: See, he's so happy.

HILLARD: It would appear Cotton, who she helped raise, agrees.

For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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