REPORTS OF A SHORTAGE OF FOOD supply veterinarians are nothing new. But now, there's proof. "Estimating FSVM Demand and Maintaining the Availability of Veterinarians for Careers in Food Supply Related Disciplines in the United States and Canada," a 2006 study financed by the Food Supply Veterinary Medical Coalition and Bayer Animal Health, projects that demand for food supply veterinarians will increase 12 percent to 13 percent between now and 2016—and forecasts a 4 percent to 5 percent shortfall of veterinarians per year. In practical numbers, the study says that for every 100 job openings, there will be only 96 veterinarians to fill the positions.
"A shortage of food animal veterinarians has massive ramifications," says Dr. Jack Walther, the 2003-2004 president of the AVMA and president of the 2005 Western Veterinary Conference. "To give you some idea of how bad it's getting, 30 years ago five food animal veterinarians worked in my town—Elko, Nev. Today, there's one, and he works part-time."
Anatomy of the problem
Dr. Walther admits the economics and the care of food animals have changed dramatically over that time. Ranchers do much more herd health work themselves, he says, and have access to almost every drug a veterinarian does—cutting into what was a substantial income stream. In fact, Dr. Walther himself became discouraged that he couldn't offer the level of treatment he'd been trained to provide so he switched to companion animal practice.
In the FSVM study, which surveyed students and veterinarians in academia, industry, government, and private practice, respondents listed "less emphasis on food animal practice in veterinary colleges" as the greatest factor in the shortage. Student respondents also blamed perceived difficulties related to rural economies—poor income opportunities, few spousal career options, a lack of positive role models, limited lifestyle and career opportunities, and a lack of cultural and recreational opportunities all contributed to the overall problem. (See Figure 1)
Figure 1 Top 10 factors influencing the shortage
Interestingly, students' perceptions may not mirror actual conditions; food animal veterinarians studied expressed a high degree of career satisfaction—higher, in fact, than practitioners in other segments of the veterinary profession.
Shifting student population
"Rural folks make up an ever smaller part of the general population," says Dr. David Horn, an independent food animal consultant in Greenwich, N.Y., and one of the founders and a regional director for the Academy of Rural Veterinarians (ARV). (The ARV promotes rural veterinary practice through its Web site,
http://www.ruralvets.com/). "So we see more urban and suburban applicants entering veterinary school. And they naturally arrive with less experience with large animals, and so less interest in food animal practice."
Figure 2 Top 10 solutions to the shortage
And, he says, both the families and professors of female students—now a majority in veterinary classes—may discourage them from pursuing bovine practice due to their size or strength. "But these factors really don't influence your success in this career," he says.