Vet Shortage Could Put Squeeze on Horse Owners

The nation could face a shortage of as many as 4,000 veterinarians in the next six years, if current trends continue, according to a recent study based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Researchers at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University found while examining the data that veterinary schools will only produce about 21,600 graduates, well-short of the estimated need of 24,000 new veterinarians. Current statistics list veterinary medicine as the ninth fastest growing occupation in the United States.

The study also suggests that large animal owners will feel the crunch most of all. Although no national statistics are available, 56% of food animal veterinarians in New England are over age 50 (compared to 43% of all veterinarians), and more than a quarter of those in that specialty are expected to retire by 2014.

"We've seen large animal veterinarians become one of the most critical needs recently, whereas 30 years ago, that was the face of the industry," says Tom Keppeler, a spokesman for the Cummings School at Tufts University. "We need to work to make large animal medicine more appealing (for veterinary graduates)."

"We've seen large animal veterinarians become one of the most critical needs recently, whereas 30 years ago, that was the face of the industry." –Tom Keppeler, Tufts University
The root of the problem is that the nation's 28 veterinary schools are taking as many students as they can, but not enough to keep up with growing demands. "We all face infrastructure problems," says Keppeler. "Just considering lecture halls, Tufts is capped at 80 to 85 students per class."

Another major problem lies in the realm of starting salaries--especially those of large animal veterinarians. According to statistics provided by the AVMA, new veterinary graduates face an average of $106,000 in debt after finishing school, while they can only expect a baseline starting salary of about $55,000 in food animal medicine and about $40,000 in equine medicine. This compares to an average baseline starting salary of more than $61,000 for graduates entering small animal medicine.

"Of course, this number increases over time, but at the beginning it can be pretty daunting," says AVMA spokesman David Kirkpatrick.

In the future, the veterinary medical profession and, ultimately, the horse owner, might receive some help through two government programs: the Veterinary Medical Service Act, signed into law in 2003, but currently dormant, and the Veterinary Public Health Workforce Expansion Act, which is currently making its way through Congress. The former would provide tuition reimbursement for veterinarians who work in underserved areas, while the later would provide competitive grants to U.S. veterinary schools to improve teaching facilities and build more classrooms and research facilities.

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