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Shortage of rural veterinarians plagues Kansas, Nation

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Mar 2, 2005
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Shortage of rural veterinarians plagues Kansas, nation


Associated Press

WICHITA, Kan. - The shortage of rural veterinarians has worsened in recent years as more old-timers retire, and that has left livestock producing states such as Kansas more vulnerable when it comes to early detection of animal diseases, industry officials said.

"We need veterinarians to alert us if there is any sign of foreign animal disease," said Kansas Animal Health Commissioner George Teagarden. "If a producer has a problem and can't get a vet until the next day that may be late for us. ... If there is an unusual disease, we need to know about it."

While nothing has come up in Kansas yet, the concern is that if an unusual disease were to arise, it could spread before it's caught.

The shortfall of veterinarians is also affecting government agencies - such as the U.S. Agriculture Department's food safety inspection service - which are entrusted to oversee food production, said Ralph Richardson, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University.

"It's not just a matter of a veterinarians in the rural community," he said.

The shortfall is expected to worsen as more large-animal veterinarians retire and younger vets are drawn to more lucrative practices treating pets in cities. The nation's veterinary schools are teaching more students from metropolitan areas who have few, if any, ties to farms.

"The issue is: There are not enough veterinarians out there to serve, and many of our existing practitioners are getting to the age they want to retire and can't find anybody that wants to buy their practice and maintain their practice," Teagarden said. "We are running shorter and shorter of veterinarians."

Among those who got out is Hallie Hasel, who after 11 years sold her veterinary practice in Leoti in western Kansas to take a job with more benefits and better hours at the Agriculture Department. She was among the lucky ones: She was able to find a veterinarian in a neighboring community to buy her practice.

"It is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week commitment. You don't have time off - especially if you are a solo practitioner," Hasel said.

Another factor is that the most graduating veterinarians today are women - many with little interest in taking on the physically demanding and time consuming work involved with large-animal practices in rural areas, statistics show.

Nationwide, women comprised more than 73 percent of students enrolled in 27 veterinary colleges during the 2004-05 school year, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Women also far outnumber men at Kansas State University's veterinary school, where more than 70 percent are female.

"A few of the women are interested in going into large-animal practice, but a lot are not," said Howard Erickson, a professor of physiology at Kansas State and co-author of the book "A Century of Excellence," which documents the school's College of Veterinary Medicine.

Another telling statistic: nearly 85 percent veterinarians whose practice comprises predominantly large animals are men, according to American Veterinary Medical Association membership records.

By the end of last year, just 4 percent of the nation's veterinarians in private practice treated large animals exclusively, while slightly more than 5 percent treated mostly large animals. The practices of an additional 8 percent worked with both, according to the association.

That compares with more than 63 percent of private veterinarians who worked exclusively with small animals and nearly 12 percent who worked predominantly with the smaller animals, the association's figures show.

"Veterinary practice is not an easy job. It is hard work, and all the students today want to have a better lifestyle than some of our old practitioners used to," Teagarden said. "They don't want to be on call seven days a week. ... They want to be close to metropolitan areas where there are more social events and opportunities."

In Kansas, the shortage of veterinarians seems most acute in the southwestern part of the state, said Gary Reser, executive vice president of the Kansas Veterinary Medical Association.

"We know it certainly is a developing situation in Kansas, probably the way it is in most rural areas in the Midwest," he said.

Despite the shortfall of veterinarians in southwest Kansas - which has a large concentration of feedlots - Reser said he does not believe detection of animal diseases in those operations is an issue because most those feedlots have their own veterinarians on staff.

Some states are trying to entice more students into large-animal practices. For example, Kansas State University has a scholarship program for students who want to go into agricultural veterinary services, Richardson said.

The college, in cooperation with the Kansas Veterinary Medical Association, has also established a mentoring program pairing students with veterinarians in rural practices. Other initiatives include hiring an associate dean for career development, who educates people as young as junior high pupils to educate them about veterinary medicine.

The iconic image of a country vet - immortalized in books such as James Herriot's "All Creatures Great and Small" - has today been supplanted by cattle, dairy and pork industries where animals are more concentrated and treated by fewer veterinarians, Richardson said.

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