Where Have All the Veterinarians Gone?

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Every equine professional has a laundry list of incidents when a vet was needed, and pronto. In some parts of this country, though, getting a vet out for regular maintenance—let alone for an emergency call—is becoming more challenging.

The American Veterinary Medical Association reports that only 65 percent of 2005 U.S. veterinary medical college graduates entered private practice. This is down from nearly 70 percent in 2003. And of those entering private practice, only 4.6 percent chose a strictly equine operation.

Veterinarians undergo a grueling eight years of post-high school education, and vet school admission is more competitive than entrance into medical school. Upon graduation, equine vets typically make less money than those in other practices. They also work in less favorable conditions, travel longer distances, and face more on-the-job hazards than small-animal vets. While many young girls dream of being a horse doctor, the reality is less romantic.

“In 2001, our membership said their second biggest concern was not enough experienced veterinarians to hire,” says Debbie Spike-Pierce, DVM, practitioner at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital and American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) student relations committee member.

Perhaps the vet crunch is felt more among backyard horse owners than in commercial operations, but the need for more vets is real.

“Take into consideration the number of people who are doing this recreationally and who are not on a strict regimen of what needs to be done when. It’s difficult for a vet to book them because of the existing schedule they already have with their regular clients,” says Crystal LeBlanc, general manager and director of instruction and training at Bright Star Farm in Danville, N.H.

Making Do

When Tammy and Jim Arnold moved their Cross A 7 Ranch to Elfrida, Ariz., in December 2005, Tammy knew she’d miss the veterinarians she’d worked with for years, but she had no idea how much.

She did her homework months before they moved, trying to find veterinarians in the area who would take on her barn of 20-plus horses. It took her five months at her new place before she found an equine vet who could accommodate her barn; this new vet came out of retirement to serve the nearly-desperate equine population in her area. Arnold’s advice to others facing an equine-veterinarian shortage in their area is, “Knowledge, persistence, and patience.”

Arnold worked part-time as a vet tech for several months before moving, thinking she could brush up on her vet knowledge while bringing in extra income. Looking back, the experience she gained probably saved her horses’ lives more than once.

Not everyone has the opportunity to take time away from a full-time equine operation to understudy with a veterinarian, but there are other knowledge avenues that can be pursued. Of course, articles, books, and the Internet can be abundant sources of information when tempered with common sense.

Also, suggests Arnold, “Check the community colleges and universities in your area to see if they offer any equine classes. Go to any and all horse-owner clinics that might be in or around your area. Volunteer to work with your vet!”

Keri Simpson-Martindale agrees that self-knowledge is the way to go in dealing with a veterinary shortage. With nearly 40 horses at her Hidden Hollow Stables and Training in Dunlap, Ill., Simpson-Martindale has a good relationship with her veterinarians, although they have to travel 35 miles or more to get to her barn.

“I do a lot of my own work on consultation with the vet on the telephone. I do a lot of calling and saying, ‘This is what’s happening and this is what I want to do. What do you think?’ says Simpson-Martindale. “When I say I need them, it means I need them now.”

Similarly, Arnold keeps her first-aid kit fully stocked with everything from Banamine for a colicking horse to oxytocin for a mare with a retained placenta. In the event of a vet not being available, she’s able to buy time to trailer the horse to a clinic or get a vet to the farm.

While it’s important to not cry wolf, get to know your veterinarian. A good relationship and “regular client” status will put you at the top of your vet’s priority list when it comes to needing emergency treatment.

“Find one and be loyal. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion when you need one, but stick with your main vet,” says Simpson-Martindale.

In addition to treating current equine vets well, Dr. Spike-Pierce urges horse owners to encourage new vets down the line: “If you know someone you think might be interested, try to have them around when the farm vet comes. Teach them good horse-handling skills. If you are taking a horse to a referral center, invite them to see different aspects of equine veterinary medicine.”

With the industry working together, this shortage doesn’t have to last forever.