A Shift in Veterinary Trends

A Shift in Veterinary Trends

Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor

In response to tough financial times and an evolving industry, equine veterinarians are reevaluating their specialties and ­adapting to change.

The landscape of veterinary medicine is changing as it adapts to economic and societal shifts. You might be accustomed to the following: Your veterinarian travels to where your horse lives for checkups and treatments, unless the horse needs more intensive procedures or therapy, in which case you might load him up and take him to a referral clinic. However, that traditional scenario has given way to appointments at large clinics with boarded specialists, more veterinarians considering the public sector, and practitioners struggling to keep up with all the veterinary information now available to horse owners online. Here, sources from the industry reflect on these trends and the ways in which equine veterinarians have been impacted and are responding.

The Overall Numbers

In 2006 the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) began compiling current U.S. veterinary statistics for review. That year there were 81,468 licensed veterinarians in the United States, a figure that rose to 90,201 by 2010. Of those numbers, 56,092 (69.8%) and 61,502 (68.2%), respectively, were in private practice. The number in the "mixed animal" category, which is a combination of large and small animal practice, has dropped slightly from 4,376 (7.8% of the total) to 4,326 (7.0% of the total). The greatest increase in licensed veterinarians appears to be in the companion animal exclusive segment, which covers the cats, dogs, other small mammals, and exotics. This category has grown by more than 1% in the last four years. Public and corporate employment includes veterinarians that work for the federal, state, or local governments, colleges or universities, and other corporate industries. These numbers also increased from 13,789 in 2006 to 15,301 in 2010. 

While there isn't an overall shortage of veterinarians, there is one of large animal practitioners in rural areas. These vets are typically mobile and specialize in livestock, which includes food animals: beef, sheep, swine, and dairy, but a livestock veterinarian's practice population often includes horses, as well. The number of food animal veterinarians has declined by more than 1% in the last four years, and those numbers are expected to continue shrinking. According to W. Ron DeHaven, DVM, MBA, AVMA executive vice president, one of the big reasons for this is that the nation's changing demographics show more people living in urban areas and fewer in rural areas. There are also the drawbacks of long hours on the road compounded by seemingly ever-increasing gas prices. As a result, fewer students consider working for a mobile large animal practice, he notes.

"Individuals have reported expanding into other types of work, necessary due to less spending by owners for equine medical problems." --Dr. Nathaniel A. White II

And while the number of equine veterinarians has risen from 3,404 to 3,743 over four years, the percent of the total ¬number in the veterinary industry--6.1%--remains constant. Nathaniel A. White II, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, Jean Ellen Shehan professor and director at Virginia Tech's Marion DuPont Scott Equine Medical Center, in Leesburg, believes this is most likely due to the current economy and the lower salary for veterinary school graduates entering as equine practitioners. "Though I am not aware of surveys that indicate the number of equine practitioners switching to alternatives such as small animal practice, individuals have reported expanding into other types of work, necessary due to less spending by owners for equine medical problems," he explains.

Gender Shift

In 2006, 52.9% of all veterinarians in the United States were male and 47.1% were female. By 2010 the balance had shifted almost equally in the other direction: 52.1% were female and 47.9% were male. Another noteworthy statistic is that the number of female equine veterinarians rose 3.7% from 2006 to 2010 while the number of male equine veterinarians declined, possibly due to the number of male veterinarians reaching retirement age and an influx of female additions to the industry. White says current veterinary school classes consist of 70-80% women. "Time will tell if the trend for more women than men to become veterinarians continues," he says. "Either way, the profession is fortunate to be attracting some of the best minds."

Specialization in the Field

In response to a public that demands a higher level of care and increasingly advanced treatments, more veterinarians are delaying starting or joining a practice to continue their schooling to become board-certified specialists. Again, the AVMA has compiled statistics covering a wide variety of areas. The total number of active board-certified diplomates as of December 2006 was 8,510, and as of December 2010 it was up to 10,210. The number of American Board of Veterinary Practitioners- (ABVP) certified vets, for instance, has risen from 800 to 868, with the number of those in equine rising only slightly from 87 to 89.

The greatest increases among specialties seem to be in internal medicine. The number of veterinarians specializing in large animal internal medicine with the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) has increased from 410 in 2006 to 480 in 2010 (17%). Similarly, the sum of large animal specialists from the American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS) has risen from 67 to 171 (155%) in only four years.

The Financial Situation

The AVMA also tracks median professional income before taxes. While the average annual income for a veterinarian in private practice has risen from $79,000/year in 2006 to $97,000/year in 2010, the average salary among equine veterinarians has actually declined significantly from $91,000 to $85,000. Reasons for that are not obvious, but again it could be a factor of the current economic shift in the horse industry.

"The horse economy is responding to the economy with reports suggesting less horses being bred, less foals being born, and a lack of new horse owners," says White. "This shift ... makes hiring new (equine veterinary) graduates a difficult decision. Income for new graduate veterinarians just starting in the profession is significantly less than can be found in food animal or small animal practice."

Working in the public sector continues to be lucrative. The average salary in 2006 for a public employee was $97,000 and in 2010 was $109,000. That might sound good, but the amount of debt a new veterinarian has acquired coming out of veterinary school can be staggering. DeHaven quoted that the average veterinary school graduate's student debt in 2008 was higher than $120,000. This was up from the previous year's estimate of $106,000. Add to that the ever-increasing cost of fuel, drugs, and supplies, and a veterinarian doesn't have much left over to live on.

The Horse Owner

Veterinarians are also faced with owners who can find more information on the Internet, which can be both good and bad when it comes to distinguishing fact from opinion. White believes easy access to this information can benefit the practitioner as well as the client, but it also means that veterinarians need to keep up with current information on veterinary medical treatments. To help keep costs down, some owners might be reading more online and attempting to treat their horses themselves. On the other hand, according to White, there is at times pressure from owners for veterinarians to provide maintenance treatments such as joint injections even if no there is no problem or diagnosis.

"This is challenging because this provides a source of income but may be in conflict with what is actually needed or what is best for the horse," he says. "The veterinarian needs to remain the guardian of the horse's welfare in the face of owner demand."

Equine Mobile Practice

Equine mobile practice has changed drastically over the years as well. Before cars, veterinarians served clients by horse and buggy or even on foot. Eventually the station wagon, with its ample storage room, became the main mode of transportation. But the pickup truck soon became the new standard, and it continues to be to a certain extent. Three companies, Bowie, Part-Vet, and LaBoit, have provided the majority of mobile fiberglass units that fit into truck beds. These provide greater storage capacity and easy access to and protection of inventory and tools. However, about 10 years ago the movement started toward smaller SUVs in response to steeply climbing gas prices and practitioners (particularly the growing female population) desiring a smaller vehicle. The gas mileage on a large, fully loaded truck can be 12-14 mpg or less, whereas that of a midsize SUV is around 20 mpg. This adds up to significant savings for a mobile vet traveling 100 miles or more per day.

The next step in mobility is likely smaller flexfuel or alternative fuel vehicles. Although the trend is toward a smaller vehicle, high-tech mobile vets need room to carry items such as digital X ray machines, thermography cameras, and ultrasound machines. With a storage insert weighing upwards of 200 pounds plus the weight of equipment and supplies, the vehicle must also be built to handle the weight.

The Next Generation

According to DeHaven's testimony, the United States' 28 accredited veterinary colleges graduate about 2,600 veterinarians annually. This number has stayed relatively constant over the last 20 years. "This lack of growth in veterinary graduates is not due to a lack of applicants," he stated. "According to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, these 28 veterinary schools in the United States are at full capacity, with qualified applicants outnumbering available seats three to one."

One limiting factor for expansion is these schools need unique spaces that can be used for research, teaching, and diagnostics. They need areas to safely house animals, and with budgets being slashed the prospects of constructing new buildings are slim.

"Equine practitioners can offer more and better medical science and benefits to horses and their owners than ever before," says White. "The advances in imaging and regenerative medicine have opened up new possibilities that were only imagined 10 or 15 years ago. Surgical procedures offer life- and performance-saving solutions for problems which once only frustrated veterinarians. Continuing these advances requires horse owners and the industry to support equine research, which ultimately allows the veterinarian to deliver the best medical care."

About the Author

Stephanie J. Corum, MS

Stephanie J. Corum received a MS in animal science from the University of Kentucky in Lexington. She has worked in various aspects of the horse industry, including Thoroughbred and Arabian racing, for nearly 20 years. More information about her work can be found at www.theridingwriter.com. She has also published the illustrated children's story Goats With Coats. Currently she and her husband own Charisma Ridge, a small horse farm in Maryland, and she competes in dressage.

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