Who's Your Vet

Horse owners have noticed a shift in who their medical caregivers are, and that trend will continue in the coming decade

For anyone with a horse, it might come as no surprise that in recent years you’ve been seeing a definite change in the complexion of the equine veterinary work force: more women. This trend has been steadily increasing over the past decade, not just in equine medicine, but in veterinary medicine in general, and in other countries as well. Another change, and one that is causing concern, is that of diminishing numbers of equine practitioners in many areas of the country where there continues to be a rising demand for equine veterinary services.

The publication of James Herriot’s books in the early 1970s sparked an interest in the field of veterinary medicine, leading to more veterinary school applicants than ever before in the 1980s. Nearly 30 years later, it would seem that there is a different perception of a career in tending animals, with a notable declining interest in large animal pursuits. Changes in the profession have become a big topic of conversation in veterinary professional associations’ publications and at conferences. This has resulted in a new awareness of who makes up the equine veterinary workforce.

Women in Practice
Lisa Greenhill, associate executive director for diversity at the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC), offers the latest statistics on women in veterinary medicine: For the past 20 to 21 years, women have comprised at least half of the veterinary student demographic, and in the last three years, women have outnumbered the men, totaling around 77% of the enrollment in veterinary schools across the country.

Eleanor Green, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, ABVP, professor, chair, and chief of staff for the Large Animal Hospital at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and current president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), wonders, “One might ask whether these figures reflect the selection process or interest in the profession?”

"In recent years we’ve graduated 78% women and 22% men from the veterinary school." --Lance Perryman, DVM, PhD, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University

She reports, however, that of the 78% women and 22% men admitted to the veterinary class of 2011 at the University of Florida, the applicant pool for these slots consisted of 80% women and 20% men. She says, “The absence of gender bias in the selection process has been borne out by similar figures over the last several years in that the percentages of men and women applying are similar to the percentages of men and women accepted.”

Lance Perryman, DVM, PhD, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University, similarly reports, “In recent years we’ve graduated 78% women and 22% men from the veterinary school.”

Green has spent a satisfying professional career observing the changes in the equine veterinary world. She says, “The feminization of the profession is remarkable and represents a dramatic change from when I entered veterinary school in 1969. There were four women out of my class of 100 freshmen veterinary students, and three women made it though the curriculum to earn their veterinary degrees. At that time it seemed that the most prevalent jobs for women were secretarial, teaching, and nursing. Today there is greater freedom for women to pursue whatever career they desire. National trends indicate that while men continue to dominate science fields related to engineering and mathematics, more women than ever before are entering the health care professions, including human and veterinary medicine.”

A survey published in the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education in 2004 examined the characteristics of veterinary college applicants: 89% were female and enjoyed science, but most (96%) expressed that their interest in veterinary medicine related to a love of animals and sympathy for sick or injured animals. Of these applicants, 75% had pets in their homes, 20% were involved with horseback riding, 17% had experiences with animal-related projects and activities in 4-H, and 16% had husbandry experience at farms or stables.

This trend toward women is not exclusive to the United States. A study out of the Netherlands in 2000 noted that veterinary students differed from the general community in that progressively more were female.

Vets age chart

According to data presented by Jim Flanigan, director of marketing for the AVMA, as of December 2007, there were 3,700-4,500 members of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), who practice on horses. He says the age of the bulk (76%) of equine veterinarians ranges from 30 to 60. About 9% are younger than age 30 and 10% are 60 to 70 years old.

While the ages of graduating veterinary students range from mid-20s to mid-40s, the average age of a new graduate is usually around 30 years old, coming out the end of a seven-eight-year challenge of higher education.

Green comments, “Studies of generational demographics indicate a trend toward multiple professions and job changes. The broad age range of applicants and students admitted to veterinary school supports these studies.”

Of each Colorado State class of 134 people, Perryman notes that 15–25% of the graduates express an interest to pursue a career in equine practice or to minister to horses as part of a large animal or mixed practice. Green has found similar statistics at the University of Florida veterinary school: “Over the last five years (classes graduating from 2003 to 2007), approximately 10% to 15% entered equine practice with another 5% to 10% going to either mixed or large animal practice.”

Where Are the Equine Vets?
One big question is: How many of these graduates stay with horse work for the long term?

In the report from the Netherlands, while nearly half of the veterinarians practiced mainly small animal medicine, 24% pursued large animal medicine that did not include horses, and 24% worked in mixed practice (both small and large animals, including horses) while only 4% pursued a career in exclusively equine medicine. Overall, the number of U.S. veterinarians who are members of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and have remained committed to solely equine practice is only 6%. Add to that the 8% in mixed practice, and it totals about 14% engaged in horse work, as compared to the 76% who involve themselves in companion (small) animal practice.

In 2005 the AAEP reported that of the surveyed equine veterinarians, 57% focus their practices on performance and pleasure horses, 15% on racehorses, and 14% on reproduction.

According to data presented by Jim Flanigan, director of marketing for the AVMA, as of December 2007 there were 3,700-4,500 members of the AVMA who practiced on horses. He says the age of the bulk (76%) of equine veterinarians ranged from 30 to 60. About 9% were younger than age 30 and 10% were 60 to 70 years old. When asked to assess their personal characteristics, graduate veterinarians described themselves as reliable, honest, professional, client-minded, and animal-friendly.

Limited Ethnic Diversity
While women are no longer in the minority of equine practitioners, only a small number of ethnic groups are represented. A census in 2005 of AAEP members reported that only about 9% are minorities. Perryman comments, “Professionwide, we struggle to attract the diversity of applicants that is reflective of the diversity of our society.”

The role of the horse in society has changed—from beast of burden he has become a recreational animal. In light of this, Greenhill has some ideas as to why the profession is affected by limited ethnic diversity, saying, “A background in significant exposure to horses is not a typical experience for minority Americans. Not only is there a geographical issue of lack of rural proximity to horses, but the equestrian world is knitted closely to a level of affluence not experienced by many minority prospective students. Some may not have continued exposure to horses that might otherwise generate motivation and interest in pursuing a career in equine veterinary medicine.”

In addition, Greenhill remarks, “One dominant image of the profession is that of the ‘gentle doc,’ which has been—and continues to be—depicted as a white male tending to a horse, in spite of the rising number of women in the profession. This limits diversity and paints a narrow picture about a minority’s place in the profession.”

Career Track
Perryman suspects that reasons why fewer veterinary graduates might pursue equine practice have to do with economic factors as well as context of experience. He says, “Familiarity and comfort with horses at the time a student applies for admission to veterinary school determines if a graduate will be comfortable pursuing a career working with horses.”

With increasing nationwide urbanization, there are fewer prospective students with a background in farm animals, ranching, or riding, so this could further diminish the number of individuals interested in equine practice. Perryman says, “Some students start a veterinary medical curriculum knowing they want exclusive or predominant equine practice, and they retain that conviction at the time of graduation. Others decide to pursue different aspects of veterinary medicine as they become acquainted with those opportunities during the educational process.”

Perryman recommends, “Prospective equine practitioners will benefit from time spent with successful and progressive equine practitioners and specialists to gain appreciation for the range of opportunities in this area of veterinary medicine.”

Perryman notes another obstacle for new veterinarians wishing to enter the equine field: “The debt load a new veterinarian has at time of graduation makes equine practice less enticing, as small animal veterinarians tend to earn more income, particularly in the early years of practice.

“The average educational debt load of the U.S. veterinary graduate in 2007 was around $110,000,” he adds. “This debt load may discourage some from applying to veterinary school in the first place, or it may drive others into career pathways that require fewer years of education and provide higher starting salaries.

“For those who do elect for veterinary school,” he continues, “Many graduating veterinarians find it necessary to seek high-paying positions in large metropolitan areas in order to repay the debt load acquired during their educational experience. This may prevent them from living where they might prefer to live, and/or practicing on their species of choice.”

Furthermore, Greenhill remarks that such a debt load (and accrued interest) might discourage those veterinarians newly entering the workforce from buying into an established practice.

Green advises students to look at comparative income figures over time, not just at graduation, as salaries for equine practitioners eventually tend to pass those of vets treating other species. She says, “Some hypothesize that the comparatively lower salaries for entry level equine practitioners are based on their level of equine core competencies at graduation, coupled with high expectations of horse owners, many of whom are very knowledgeable about equine health care.”

Nationwide, of new graduates entering practice, more than one-third are now pursuing internships and residencies at private practices or veterinary schools before striking off to settle into more permanent associate positions.

Green comments, “Two pressing issues of internships are the benefits of the concentrated learning experience and the notoriously low intern salaries. Learning experiences are considered investments in one’s professional development in order to become proficient, build a career, attract clients, and fulfill the obligation to the patient.

While some new graduates prefer a concentrated program, like an internship, others may not be able to (for family or financial reasons) or prefer not to meet the demands of an internship. The take-home message is that there is no one prescribed path to become proficient in equine veterinary medicine.”

Green reports on the AAEP Equine Education Summit of 2007, saying, “This summit should have a positive impact on recruitment and successful admission of top student prospects and their retention during their veterinary curriculum and after graduation. The resulting initiatives will involve partnerships among practicing veterinarians and academic institutions.”

Green emphasizes, “It has never been a better time to be an equine veterinarian. Medical technology available in veterinary medicine closely follows that in human medicine, which makes for an exciting, challenging, and dynamic profession. Horse owners today are more educated than ever before. They demand high-quality veterinary care and are willing to pay for it. The pre-veterinary requirements coupled with the veterinary curriculum provide as solid and broad an education as there is available today. The many, varied opportunities offer something for everyone.”

Why the Demographic Shift?
As demand for equine veterinary services increases, there are fewer veterinarians available to head to the barns to work on horses. Let’s explore a few reasons why that might be and why women are increasingly dominating the industry.

Recent demographic studies across all professions have indicated that fewer men are pursuing post-secondary education, making the veterinary field more open for interested women. There is also the consideration that fewer male students are attracted to veterinary medicine because of the potential to earn more money in other professions, thereby enabling them to be better equipped to support a family.

A 2002 survey of Australian veterinarians summarized, “Low income may contribute to the low number of males entering the veterinary profession.” In addition, reports throughout the world (New Zealand, Australia, Netherlands, and the United States) concur that women practitioners are paid considerably less than their male counterparts in veterinary medicine. (This unfortunate phenomenon appears to be true in the general professional job market and is not solely restricted to veterinary medicine. Recent national figures estimate that women are paid $0.77 for every dollar earned by a man.)

Another telling feature relates to the lifestyle of equine practice—the general rule is that it tends to pull people away from family, friends, and personal pursuits more than many other professions, simply due to the nature of the beast, if you will. Horse emergencies cannot be planned, and these tend to happen at all hours, with many equine veterinarians responsible not just for their day job, but also for the remaining portion of 24-hour shifts. This makes for long and unending work weeks, many interruptions, and limited family and/or personal time.

More women are going into equine practice because they are compassionate caregivers with a passion for horses, yet they recognize that the 24/7 demand of equine practice requires a degree of flexibility to accommodate the constraints of being on call all the time. In many cases, it is more desirable to work part-time and to, at the very least, job share with others in the practice. This enables women to take time out for raising children and to keep up with family demands, especially when supplemented by their husband’s income. Once the young child-rearing years are over, these women can focus on a full-time veterinary career if desired, having the best of both worlds.

Fewer men are entering the profession, not just in equine practice, but in all areas of veterinary medicine. Green also reports that, in general, proportionally fewer men comprise university undergraduate student bodies—approximately 55% of undergrads are women and 45% are men. Of the men still in active veterinary practice, many are older and getting closer to retirement age.

Flanigan further reports, “While 22% of active AVMA members are over the age of 55, equine-exclusive and -predominant shares a similar statistic—21%. Hence, one out of every five equine veterinarians is in an age zone of potential retirement.”

This means that with the increasing numbers of female graduates, it is likely the equine veterinary profession will be dominated by women in the not-so-distant future. In 2005 the AAEP reported that of that group’s membership, 64% were men and 36% were women, while the 2008 AAEP membership statistic of those engaged in equine veterinary medicine shows a split of 60% men to 40% women.

Green proposes some other reasons for this gender shift, noting, “There are numerous theories for these trends. One is that there is an overshoot phenomenon, whereby women are rushing to enter professions from which they were formerly excluded. Another is that women, as traditional caregivers, are drawn to health care professions. They may particularly choose veterinary medicine, with its lower salaries in comparison with those in human medicine, as they may feel freer to select what they prefer with less consideration of salary, as they have not been the traditional family breadwinners.”

Solo vs. Multidoctor Practices
In response to the lifestyle demands of equine practice and the availability of more technology, another current trend is for equine practitioners to team up with others in a group practice rather than working as solo ambulatory veterinarians. Based on 2005 membership data from the AAEP, 41% of equine veterinarians in private practice were in a group practice of two or more vets, while 38% practiced solo. In addition to the university teaching hospitals, an increasing number of private clinical facilities are available to provide medical and surgical care, with owners hauling their horses to doctor appointments or for emergencies. Farm calls are still common, but it is more likely that when you call for an appointment, you might work with a veterinarian employed in a group practice and might not always see the same doctor on every occasion.

Solo practitioners are still driving from farm to farm, but with the advent of greater technology and equipment, there are more reasons to transport a horse to a clinical setting at a veterinary hospital than to try to perform high-tech medicine on the farm. In many cases, the equipment isn’t portable and there aren’t technicians and support staff available at an owner’s barn to facilitate the work.

Green adds, “Creative equine veterinarians are solving client and emergency demands by developing a number of models that fit their particular circumstances. For example, one equine practice with nine associates has crafted a full-coverage schedule comprised of four-day work weeks. Such models require emphasis on client education, but many are reporting good client acceptance.”

She continues, “Career flexibility in all of its forms is a trend in today’s work force. Some successful, progressive practices and veterinary schools are catching on to this concept with full realization that their future ability to recruit and retain the best will depend upon taking care of employees, both veterinarians and support staff, in this way.”

Take-Home Message
The trends show that the equine veterinarian of the future will be a woman, quite possibly working part-time or job sharing in a group practice. Some might argue that brawn is necessary to handle horses, but safe pharmaceutical products provide reliable restraint for handling fractious horses. Medical advances and high-tech equipment have also opened endless possibilities in equine practice with opportunities for women and others from all walks of life to dedicate themselves to horse care.

Green is excited about the future of equine practice, saying, “Some might ask how much more today’s equine veterinarians can bring to their clients? For today, equine veterinarians can help clients understand the importance of health care, from wellness programs to critical care. For tomorrow, they can emphasize the importance of equine research that is substantially advancing our knowledge of diseases and the resulting level of care available.”

Yet there remains a growing concern that there will not be enough people committed to the pursuit of equine veterinary medicine to provide for the ever-growing increase in horse owner demand. As older practitioners retire within the next decade, an ongoing question remains: Who will be our vets?


About the Author

Nancy S. Loving, DVM

Nancy S. Loving, DVM, owns Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colorado, and has a special interest in managing the care of sport horses. Her book, All Horse Systems Go, is a comprehensive veterinary care and conditioning resource in full color that covers all facets of horse care. She has also authored the books Go the Distance as a resource for endurance horse owners, Conformation and Performance, and First Aid for Horse and Rider in addition to many veterinary articles for both horse owner and professional audiences.

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