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Study shows fewer veterinary students are planning to work with large animals

Cow Vet

FRESNO, Calif. — The number of veterinarians who work with cows, pigs, chickens and other farm animals is on the decline as many prepare to retire and fewer students opt for large animal practice, results from a recent study showed.

Current vets said they already drive for hours to meet with clients, and officials are worried about the impact on food safety because large-animal veterinarians serve as inspectors at ranches and slaughterhouses.

"They're basically on the front line when it comes to maintaining a safe food supply, not only in the U.S.  but in products we export. Vets diagnose diseases that can be transferred from animals to humans," said David Kirkpatrick, spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Assn. Results of a survey conducted by the group were released last month.

The study found that only 2% of veterinary school students in 2010 graduating class said they planned to work mostly with large, non-pet animals. An additional 7% studied a mixed curriculum that included all types of animals, but the majority of responses leaned toward practicing pet care.

"We have known for years anecdotally that vets were having a difficult time finding people to work at their practice or selling it when they retire," Kirkpatrick said.

"But now we know how big the problem is and how that will magnify over the years," he said.

From 1998 to 2009, the number of small-animal vets climbed to 47,118 from 30,255, while the number of farm-animal vets dropped to 5,040 from 5,553. And the AVMA found that large-animal vets often earn a lower salary: an average of $57,745 compared with $64,744 for small-animal vets, according to a 2008 survey.

The large-animal vet world is graying -- half of farm-animal vets are older than 50, and only 4.4% are younger than 30. About a third of the veterinarians working at the federal level are eligible to retire in the next three years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

At least six rural counties in California have just one large-animal veterinarian.

Stuart Hall, 28, a veterinarian in Visalia, Calif., said a single call can tie him up for four hours -- time in which he can't respond to emergencies.

"My worry is always that a farmer is going to try to take care of something themselves," he said.

VetStudent Hall was born in rural England and educated in London before his interest in working with cows brought him to Tulare County, the nation's largest dairy producer, five years ago. He and his wife have a blog detailing his life as a farm vet.

"I just really like cows. They're big old gentle things," he said.

Hall likes working outdoors, the drives through the country and the impact his expertise can have on food operations, he said.

But for pre-vet student Justeen Borrecco, the decision to pursue a career in pet medicine was easy. She has been shoved, bruised and knocked down by the sheep she feeds every day as a student worker at the on-campus farm at Cal State Fresno.

"This is why I want to work with dogs and kitties. I don't want to deal with anything bigger than me," the 19-year-old said.

On Thursday she pulled on her farm boots, picked up bundles of hay and maneuvered her 130-pound frame around to feed dozens of ewes and lambs.

"But it's still good experience. Anything I learn or help with, like vaccines or bandaging, can apply to other animals," Borrecco said. The sophomore from Hanford, Calif., said it's important to get as much hands-on time with animals as possible before applying to vet school.

Several schools and states have tried to lure students to large-animal veterinary medicine.

At the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, applicants interested in becoming farm-animal vets have an admissions edge. The university has slowly boosted the number of students interested in large-animal medicine to 11 students out of 127, double the number from four years ago. The vet school has also reached out to high schools in rural areas.

More than a dozen states from Washington to Georgia offer some type of loan repayment program or other incentives if students pledge to work in a region in need of large-animal vets. Vet students typically finish school with about $134,000 in debt, according to the AVMA.

Iowa State's VSMART program allows students focused on farm animals to reduce by a year the amount of time it takes to get a veterinary medicine degree -- a big deal when you're talking about spending upward of $32,000 a year, Kirkpatrick said.

Federal legislators have introduced several bills to help increase the number of farm-animal vets, including the Veterinary Services Investment Act, which is aimed at recruitment, helping vets expand their practices and providing financial assistance for students. The bill passed the House in September and is awaiting approval in the Senate.

The students who have chosen to work with large animals are committed to their choice.

Elizabeth Adam, 26, of Santa Maria, Calif., earned a degree in English and business at Loyola Marymount University, and later worked as a consultant at a law firm -- but really dreamed of being a farm doctor. "I was making good money but was miserable," she said.

Adam is now in her second year at Fresno State's pre-vet program. "This is for me," she said. "The outdoors and the late-night emergency calls and the country -- I'm ready for all of that."

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-- Olivia Munoz, Associated Press

Top photo: Stuart Hall of Lone Oak Large Animal Veterinary Services prepares a vaccine for pregnant cows at a dairy farm in Visalia, Calif., on Oct. 1. Credit: Gary Kazanjian / Associated Press

Bottom photo: Fresno State pre-veterinary program student Justeen Borrecco feeds hay to sheep at the school's sheep facility on Oct. 28. Credit: Gary Kazanjian / Associated Press

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It might be worth considering that the next wave of veterinary students are also increasingly not on board with the standard of (non) care for animals in agribusiness. This isn't treating Bossy on the family farm, these are massive business operations where alleviating animal suffering runs counter to the business objective.

Theoretically a vet is supposed to be on duty at slaughterhouses to ensure that cows are "healthy" enough to walk to their own slaughter, but Google "Hallmark Westland Meat Packing" and you can find the video of workers ramming downed cows with forklifts and forcing water hoses up cows' noses to force them to walk.

A vet was on duty this year at the L.A County Fair when a pregnant cow who was being forced to give birth for the entertainment of fairgoers understandably freaked out and ran, at which point she was shot and killed by police -- to quote this blog's report of the story, this terrified cow was shot "four times in the head, three times in the body." Most conscientious vets don't sign up for a bloodbath.

And those are only two of the REPORTED incidents. Then there are the everyday, business-as-usual activities, like tail-docking of cows and pigs with no anesthesia, castration with no anesthesia, the killing of baby piglets who don't gain weight fast enough by slamming their heads into floors and walls, the legally-mandated stunning before slaughter that, you know, "sometimes" doesn't really work, the dumping of unwanted male calves at dairy farms to die in muddy lots, or the auction of these newborns straight into veal crates. Maybe it's the tossing of similarly unneeded male chicks at egg farms, live, into grinders, or into plastic bags to be crushed or smothered.

It's not hard to imagine that someone who got into veterinary medicine for the love of animals would recoil at becoming a complicit cog in the mass killing of those same animals. The world is changing; once-carefully hidden cruelty is being exposed, and even those vet students who don't care about animal suffering and who would be willing to participate will find it hard to conceal what they do for a living.

Animals in agribusiness don't get vet care. They get sliced and diced exactly to the extent it makes it more convenient for the corporations to slaughter them. Vets in agribusiness don't protect the animals, and they don't protect meat eaters from the E. coli, salmonella, etc. that are the direct result of slipshod, anything-for-a-buck slaughtering. It's not hard to see why a civilized person wouldn't want any part of that.

I’d like to clarify an item in this story pertaining to the VSMART program at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine. I incorrectly identified VSMART as the program that allows veterinary students to reduce by a year the amount of time it takes to earn a veterinary medicine degree. In fact, VSMART was established to recruit high school, college and veterinary students into rural veterinary practice.

It is the VetFAST program, hosted by the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, that allows food animal veterinary students to complete their degree program faster than normal. Students can complete their pre-veterinary classes in three years instead of four, enabling them to join the university’s College of Veterinary Medicine and complete both degrees in seven years.

Sorry for the confusion. Both VSMART and VetFAST are fantastic programs, and I thank the veterinary students at Iowa State for bringing the error to my attention.

David Kirkpatrick
American Veterinary Medical Association

There is a difference in slaughtering an animal humanely for the food system and purposely bringing harm to them. Veterinarians play a big role in ensuring safe animal handling practices are carried out on farms. To understand that animals are going to go to harvest to provide food for people all over the world is something that is common sense, especially for those going into large animal veterinary medicine.
The physical work put into the profession is immense. All vets enter into the profession knowing that they are going to deal with life and death and that doesn't matter whether you practice with farm animals or pets. But the job is to do what is in your power to make sure animals have a good quality of life. The love for animals does not diminish and no one should try to discredit that.

Tessa -- seriously? At first I thought you might actually believe there was such a thing as "humane slaughter," an Orwellian term if ever there was one.

But on second thought, I'm guessing you're either part of the slaughter industry, or the veterinary industry. That, or an inexcusably naive first-year vet student. No one else could possibly spout the absurdities you do. If you honestly don't see a difference between looking after companion animals who, yes, will ultimately die, as we all will, but who receive vet care to postpone that inevitablity for as many years as possible, versus working in the slaughter industry, where the POINT is to kill the animals, you have a moral comprehension deficit. And any sane person should certainly, to use your term, "discredit" someone such as yourself for trying to make a false equivalence between the two.

The fairy tale you put forth is mere foolishness. There are no "farms," there are mass agribusiness-owned slaughterhouses that cruelly confine and kill animals with no regard even for checking the spread of deadly diseases, much less "humane" treatment. Every time video emerges to prove this apologists like you pop up to decry them, and insist that it's a huge anomaly. And then another video shows up, of workers torturing turkeys, or kicking calves in the head, or hoisting pigs in the air and strangling them over a period of several minutes while workers watch and jeer. But all of those many occurences are mere anomalies...

But this is the sentence that takes the cake: "To understand that animals are going to go to harvest to provide food for people all over the world is something that is common sense..." Wow. WHEAT is harvested. For you to actually write that animals who are stunned (or not) then electrocuted or having their throats cut are being "harvested" tells us nothing about the truth of the slaughter industry, but a lot about your personal moral vacuum. As does the delusional suggestion that cows being killed in California are somehow feeding the starving of the world. They're going to McDonald's, or Vons. Those dead cows, pigs, turkeys, veal calves and chickens aren't feeding malnourished third-worlders, they're creating the obesity, arteriosclerosis, diabetes and hypertension right here.

My best guess is that, like many in medical-related industries, you think laypeople are morons who blindly believe what you say because you have (or will have) a diploma that says "Doctor" on it. It's best you realize that acting like you know more than others is not the same as telling (or admitting to yourself) the truth. Your post makes you look either devious and without conscience or, at minimum, unconscionably gullible.

LA Voter is so right on, good anger,pissed off at what is going on out there on such an overwhelming huge scale, seems so unstoppable. I want to become a large animal vet, I haven't been able to find a college that I don't have to raise a cow or pig to slaughter it to get my degree.


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