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A shortage of veterinarians who care for both small and large animals has caused at least one local animal hospital to shorten its hours and farmers across Missouri to scramble to care for ailing cows and horses.

“You’re sitting there dialing every number” and trying to provide the animal with first aid at the same time, said Jim Reed, a retired farmer and president of the Washington County Farm Bureau.

Reed said that in emergency situations, an animal may need to see a veterinarian within 15 minutes. This presents a problem in areas like Vernon County, where there is only one veterinarian for every 206,000 food animals, according to documents filed by the acting state veterinarian with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Missouri, there are veterinary shortages across the state, according to documents filed earlier this year by Taylor Woods, the acting state veterinarian until June. The greatest need appears to be for veterinarians who care for cattle, horses and pigs in rural areas, but the shortage has been felt in other areas, including St. Louis County.

In May, the formerly 24-hour Webster Groves Animal Hospital & Urgent Care Center abbreviated its hours, citing “a shortage of veterinarians across the industry.”

Many emergency clinics rely on “relief” veterinarians to take shifts when no one else can.

While veterinarians are critical for the safety of pets and farm animals, they also perform a variety of other jobs that affect animal welfare and human health.

“If we don’t have enough veterinarians inspecting our food and making sure that our food is safe, that puts the entire American population at risk,” said John de Jong, former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Large animals at risk

The issue of vet shortages isn’t new, but it appears to be worsening, according to farmers and industry professionals.

Reed, of Washington County, said the number of large-animal veterinarians in his area has dropped in recent years. He relies on a veterinarian in neighboring Jefferson County.

He added that some clinics will treat large animals but won’t send vets out to farms. That leaves farmers in a difficult position, Reed said, because an injured cow or horse can’t be taken to a clinic as easily as a dog or a cat.

In emergency situations, these coverage gaps can cost animals their lives.

When a cow is giving birth and a vet is two hours away, the cow and the calf could both be dead by the time help arrives, said Carol Ryan, who is a part owner of veterinary clinics in Wentzville, Troy and Elsberry, and president of the Missouri Veterinary Medical Association.

Obstacles for future vets

It’s not that fewer people want to become vets. In fact, the number of U.S. citizens graduating with veterinary medicine degrees increased about 6% between 2014 and 2017, according to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.

Rather, industry leaders point to the high debt associated with veterinary school, which leads graduates to pursue career opportunities with high salaries, leaving gaps elsewhere.

“Tuition expenses have exploded,” said Richard Antweiler, executive director of the Missouri Veterinary Medical Association.

Between 2008 and 2017, the median amount of debt among vet school graduates who owe money rose 44%.

After graduating, many vets pursue specialized internships, fellowships and residency programs with the expectation that specializing will lead to higher pay, said Carolyn Henry, dean of the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. This leaves the industry with fewer general practice veterinarians.

In general, small-animal and companion veterinarians based in urban environments earn higher salaries than large-animal vets in rural areas. But Ryan noted that there are some well-paid jobs in the large-animal realm, such as veterinarians who care for expensive horses.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that St. Louis County and St. Louis city veterinarians earn an average annual wage of $99,930. That is competitive with the national average annual wage of $105,240, but in other parts of the state, the numbers tell a different story.

In places like Lawrence and Vernon counties, which are identified as shortage areas in documents filed by the acting state veterinarian, that number is $68,220.

On top of wage disparities, being a large-animal veterinarian requires long hours and grueling physical labor, which may further deter vets from pursuing these jobs, Ryan said.

“Your body just gets very beat up,” she said.

Ryan said she ruptured two discs in her back from the long-term strain of large animal work, forcing her to cut back.

Efforts under way to stop shortages

Those concerned about the shortages say they want universities to graduate more students from veterinary schools, with less debt.

The University of Missouri has the only accredited veterinary school in the state, one of just 30 in the country, but more schools are receiving accreditation to teach veterinary medicine. One Arizona school was accredited in 2018; one in Tennessee was accredited this year. Three additional colleges are in the accreditation process in Arizona, New York and Texas.

From 2008 to 2010, the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine increased its graduating class size to 120 students from 80.

There is plenty of demand for the extra seats. Last year, there were more than 1,200 applicants for 120 positions in the program, said Henry.

But Henry also cautions that increasing class size requires other considerations. “Rather than just trying to put more students through the pipeline, we need to make sure that we’ve got the capacity to do that,” said Henry.

More students mean more exam rooms, clients, computers and other resources essential to the veterinary medicine curriculum, and these take time to acquire.

Easing the debt burden

In 2001, Missouri lawmakers established a program to help alleviate vet school debt and fill shortage areas.

Through the Missouri Large Animal Loan Repayment Program, students can receive up to $20,000 annually if they agree to serve in designated shortage areas for four years. Six students can be funded each year through the program.

Sonja Perry graduated from the University of Missouri program in May and received three years of support through this loan repayment program. She currently works at the Franklin County Animal Medical Center, which she believes is the only large-animal clinic in the area. Perry said she and her colleagues travel all over the state to fill the gaps in large-animal veterinary care.

There is also a federal veterinary medicine loan repayment program, which pays up to $25,000 of student loan debt a year, but the amount is taxed at 39%. A group of veterinarians recently went to Congress to ask lawmakers to pass legislation to eliminate the tax.

Change in the veterinary landscape is likely to happen gradually, as even the most eager veterinary candidates must complete an undergraduate degree and amass sometimes hundreds of hours of experience before even applying to four-year veterinary programs.

“There definitely is not a quick fix,” said Perry, of Franklin County.