World facing shortage of large-animal veterinarians

University Park, Pa. — The United States is facing a shortage of large-animal veterinarians that could jeopardize the nation's food supply, and result in diseases spreading from animals to humans, according to a veterinary scientist in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

All veterinary fields have looming shortages both nationally and internationally, said David Wolfgang, field studies director and senior research associate in veterinary and biomedical sciences. Perhaps most worrisome, he suggests, is the growing scarcity of "public-sector" veterinarians, who are involved in the care and treatment of livestock, the eradication of threatening diseases, and the monitoring of food safety and quality with state and federal agencies. They also play a major role in issues of animal welfare, agro- and bio-terrorism, biodiversity, and the consolidation of agribusiness.
 
“Veterinarians are a unique resource within the health-professions field — we are the only health professionals trained in comparative medicine," said Wolfgang. "We play a critical role in the linkage between agriculture, animal health and human health."
 
A major concern related to the shortages, Wolfgang explains, are zoonotic diseases, such as Salmonella, E. coli 0157:H7, tuberculosis, Ebola and avian influenza, which are passed from animals to humans. “There are more than 800 infectious zoonotic diseases worldwide and the vast majority of emerging diseases, such as West Nile virus, have a zoonotic component. All of the gravest bio-threats facing humans are zoonotic in nature, with the exception of smallpox.”
 
State, national, and even international needs for public health, food safety and security, production-animal health, and comparative medicine are now more important than ever, he said. Fewer than 80,000 veterinarians practice in the United States today, and only 15,000 are engaged in food-animal care, public practice or herd-population medicine. "This is a significantly inadequate number in relation to our needs," said Wolfgang. "In Pennsylvania the shortage is less severe, but there is still a crying need for rural veterinary practitioners."
 
The existing shortage in the field and aging population of public-sector veterinarians is exacerbated by low student enrollment in academic programs leading to public-sector veterinarian careers and poor retention in those fields, he explained.
 
Lack of student awareness is a contributing factor to low enrollment in veterinary and preveterinary curricula, Wolfgang noted. “Most people think of veterinarians as pet doctors," he said. "Many veterinary students (or students in general) are not aware of the other fields of study or specialization. Most people do not know how veterinarians can play a critical role in the science of animal care, the productivity of animal agriculture, the stewardship of the environment (wildlife, water quality, etc.), and the safety of the food system."
 
During the last several decades, companion-animal veterinary care has flourished due, in large part to the increasing affluence of many Americans. A majority of veterinary students, who are from urban or suburban backgrounds, enter these sectors of the industry, Wolfgang explained. "Companion-animal practices are generally more lucrative, which makes them more attractive to graduates who have exorbitant student loans to repay. "Nationally, the average debt-load of a veterinary school graduate is almost $120,000." he said.
 
Each year 2,500 graduates enter the veterinary job market, according to Wolfgang. Currently, about 150 to 200 veterinarians enter rural and food animal veterinary medicine every year, but almost 80 percent of them leave for different fields of veterinary medicine within three years of graduating. Each year about an equal number enter fields like teaching, research, and regulatory medicine. “To meet current needs an estimated 500 veterinarians should enter, and be retained, in the public sector each year,” he said.
 
A number of states have enacted loan-forgiveness legislation (as great as $10,000-$20,000 per year for up to four years) in hopes of encouraging graduates to locate and remain in rural areas or in the veterinary fields where there are shortages, Wolfgang said. In return for every year of financial support, graduates provide one year of service to an area in need of veterinary care. "Pennsylvania has not implemented debt forgiveness of this magnitude yet," he said. "Pennsylvania students saw a mere $800 a year in compensations for 2007."
 
At the national level, Congress recently passed legislation that will provide $1.5 billion in competitive grants for increasing veterinary school infrastructure plus separate loan-forgiveness legislation that is not yet fully funded. “Hopefully, Pennsylvania legislators will encourage their national counterparts to fully fund the national veterinary infrastructure and manpower initiatives,” said Wolfgang.
 
The shortage is a problem that won't be resolved quickly, Wolfgang pointed out. "The process could take 10 or more years to get new recruits into the field. Ten years adds up quickly when you consider undergraduate recruitment, professional school education, and additional advanced training. So we have to start as soon as possible,” he warned." Especially given the declining, and aging population of public-sector veterinarians. The actions taken by the academic community, legislators, and industry groups will be determining factors in the future of some of our greatest public health concerns."
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Last Updated November 18, 2010