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Orlando Sentinel: Rural vets in demand

Date: Saturday, June 4, 2005 Section: A SECTION
Edition: FINAL Page: A1
Source: Kumari Kelly, Sentinel Staff Writer

Rural Vets In Demand
Veterinarians whose focus is mostly large animals may be a dying breed
POLK CITY — It’s 7:30 a.m., and Dr. Tony Weirather is running late. A
horse is waiting at the office.
After that, it’s more horses and cows in pastures flung far into the Green
Swamp — places where cell-phone signals drop and tending livestock takes
up teenagers’ time. Weirather, 46, is a doctor to agriculture’s largest
beasts, animals that with a kick of a hoof or toss of a horn could maim a
person for life.
Most veterinary students don’t want this kind of work. They want 9-to-5
jobs in tidy suburban clinics tending to Yorkies and Siamese cats. They
want it easier than the routine 14-hour days and round-the-clock calls of
those who work as vets on America’s farms and pastures.
Fewer vets than ever are going into the specialty of large-animal medicine
and not enough enter public health, experts say. In 1980, about 17 percent
of veterinarians worked mostly or exclusively with large animals. Today,
it’s less than 7 percent.
It’s a trend that not only stresses those who do the work, but could
threaten the public’s safety if a dreaded disease enters the nation’s food
supply because the first line of defense against animal-borne infectious
agents is stretched thin.
A bill recently introduced in the U.S. Senate seeks to change that by
helping veterinary colleges train more people.
“They are becoming an extinct species,” Dr. Harvey Rubin, 91, senior
consultant with the Florida Veterinary Medical Association in Orlando,
said of vets willing to practice on large animals in rural areas.
“Compared to 20 years ago, the numbers are greatly reduced.”
NOBODY WANTS DIRTY WORK
Weirather shoves his arm shoulder-deep inside a pregnant cow. He estimates
she’s a month along. Behind him, nearly a dozen animals push their
1,200-pound bodies against one another and two teenage boys try to keep
them wrangled.
A big black cow thrashes against the steel-pen enclosure, bending the
metal like a pipe cleaner. She gets away and Weirather decides they can
skip checking that one.
“I’m going to get a little girl to do your job,” Weirather jabs at Andy
Mason, 15.
Weirather, whose name is pronounced “Y-rather” but is known simply as “Dr.
Y.,” is like that. He jokes, he jabs, he pokes fun, all the while buzzing
around on a Diet Mountain Dew high. He has been a vet for 22 years, since
graduating from Iowa State University, and still seems to be having fun.
It’s about noon, and he has already seen one horse with a severe hoof
infection, checked another for pregnancy, given 14 Coggins tests — a
legal requirement for horse owners to guard against disease — and
diagnosed a fungus-infected tail.
He has driven at least 30 miles through the most remote areas of south
Lake and north Polk counties, and his lunch is still an hour away. It will
be convenience-store fried chicken eaten behind the wheel.
The Deseret Ranch calls.
The 300,000-acre spread that spans Osceola, Orange and Brevard counties is
owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is home to
50,000 head of cattle. The Mormons are Weirather’s best customer.
In the past week, he has given vaccines to 300 head of cattle there and
checked dozens more for pregnancy. They say they want him back — pronto.
He will go.
“They’ve been good to me,” he said. “Real good to me.”
The percentage of vets interested in this kind of work, though, has
dropped over the years. Today, 4,483 vets in the United States work mostly
or only with large animals, and 35,458 spend most or all of their time
with small animals. The trends, though, show more and more vet students
opting out of large-animal medicine altogether. The work is dirty, the
hours long and the settings far from ideal. The average starting salary of
$45,000 to $48,000 entices few to forgo a comfortable clinic practice.
Women make up the majority of veterinary-school students — 69 percent of
the class of 2007 at the University of Florida College of Veterinary
Medicine in Gainesville. But only about 18 percent of vets working
exclusively with large animals are women, according to the American
Veterinary Medical Association.
Likewise, only 2 percent of Florida’s 2007 graduating class are planning
go into the specialty of food animals, which includes some large animals
and chickens, according to the school.
“It’s a lot nicer to put on a white coat and deal with a little kitty
cat,” Rubin said.
Dr. Justin Gregg, 31, a rural vet near the Mississippi River in Louisiana,
has been looking for help for his large-animal practice for months. The
setting is typical. Of all the jobs for large-animal vets listed on the
AVMA Web site, all are in remote and rural areas like Gregg’s job listing.
“They don’t want to be pulling calves at 2 a.m. on the coldest night of
the year,” he said. “It’s not very attractive to a lot of them.”
SHORTAGE CREATES PROBLEMS
The problem, though, is dire, government officials say.
By 2012, there will be 28,000 openings for veterinarians of all types,
according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Rural lifestyles that steer
kids into agriculture and that type of veterinary medicine also are
vanishing, said Joseph A. DiPietro, dean of UF’s College of Veterinary
Medicine. For instance, 30 years ago, Orange County had 22 dairies. Today,
there are none. Children who grew up around dairy cows might find interest
in life as a rural vet. But without farm experience, most will not.
Growing populations of people with pets and horses and the complicated
nature of managing large herds of farm animals have created more demand
for those types of vets, AVMA spokeswoman Sharon Granskog said.
The current crop of 2,500 graduates a year falls far short of filling the
need, industry leaders say.
This could threaten the nation’s health and even its security, experts
say, as too few vets are watching over livestock. Possible bioterrorism
agents such as anthrax, which can occur in hoofed animals and spread to
humans, and plague, which exists in animal populations and is spread by
fleas, concern federal officials.
When anthrax was used in a series of incidents in 2001-02 that killed five
people nationwide, vets were warned of the potential of its being spread
through animals. They also were called upon to help identify the strain of
anthrax used in an attack at the South Florida offices of a
tabloid-newspaper publisher.
A year earlier, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association
had warned of possible terrorist uses of diseases that can be harbored in
animals. The journal warned that agricultural bioterrorism could be more
devastating than bombs because of the economic havoc that would result
from a dreaded disease in the food supply.
Public-health concerns, though, extend well beyond terrorist acts.
Diseases such as West Nile virus, which can show up in birds and horses as
well as humans, and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which killed
800 people worldwide in 2003 and was discovered in animals, contribute to
the urgency of the need for more vets in rural areas and those willing to
specialize in public health, officials say.
A bill filed in April by U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., would provide
$300 million in 2006 and $1.2 billion over the next nine years to increase
the number of veterinarians willing to work in areas of public health and
safety of the food supply, including large animals, by funding expansion
of programs and facilities at veterinary colleges.
A federal law in 2003 created a program to subsidize tuition of veterinary
students willing to commit to working for a specified time in areas of
high need, but no money was allocated.
Filling new seats wouldn’t be difficult. UF’s College of Veterinary
Medicine has about 85 students per class, with 700 applicants each year.
Tracy Krueger, 31, of Navarre bucks the trend. She makes $21,000 annually
as a veterinary resident with the Food Animal Reproduction and Medicine
Service at the UF veterinary college, and her passion is farm work and
public health.
“As a food-animal veterinarian seeing sick animals on farm visits,
assuming the emerging disease is of food-animal origin — cows, sheep,
goats, pigs, chickens — the veterinarian is the one most likely to see,
and hopefully recognize, it first.”
BOX: 15 – Highly dangerous animal diseases
1,887 – Vets working with only large animals
29,951 – Vets working with only small animals
2,500 – Veterinary graduates each year
28,000 – Veterinarians needed by 2012
National statistics
SOURCE: Sentinel research

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