Health Care

Kansas faces a lack of large-animal vets

Bigger classes and new student loan forgiveness programs are increasing the number of veterinarians in Kansas, but demand continues to far exceed supply — a situation that has implications for the health of humans as well as animals.

Within the next five years, the nation is expected to be 15,000 veterinarians short of the number needed, said Ralph Richardson, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University.

In Kansas, the shortage continues to be acute in large-animal practices, even in areas not considered rural.

Richardson said other shortages are looming, especially in areas that relate to public health and food safety.

Large-animal practices

The shortage, especially in large-animal practices, is in part a reflection of the changing enrollment at veterinary schools, where women now make up the majority of students.

"The rewards of being in a large-animal practice are tremendous," said Sedgwick County veterinarian James Speer of Equine Surgery and Medicine.

But "large-animal medicine takes a unique individual" willing to put up with physically demanding work and long hours, he said.

"It's not unusual to go 20 nights in a row having to go on an emergency call following a long day's work."

Preston Hickman, also a Sedgwick County veterinarian with a large-animal practice, said the debt level that new graduates have "makes it very difficult for them to look at a rural practice" where pay may be lower.

And the long hours may make a rural large-animal practice less attractive to women, he said.

Speer said, "It's not that they can't practice" in a large- animal setting but that women may not find it appealing.

A survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association showed that for 2009, 67.5 percent of veterinarians in private practice limited themselves to companion animals — pets. Only 1.8 percent had practices devoted exclusively to food animals. Of them, 82.5 percent were men.

K-State's Class of 2012 has 85 women and 23 men.

Richardson said the veterinary school is increasing its next class size by four, to 112. Space constraints make it difficult to expand more, he said, though he'd like a class of 125 to 150.

Students are offered a new state loan forgiveness program designed to help fill the need for rural veterinarians.

The first five students in the program graduate later this month, Richardson said, and four had jobs by mid-April, with the fifth near agreement.

The program is similar to loan forgiveness programs for physicians and other health professionals who agree to practice in underserved areas.

The veterinary graduates will have $20,000 of debt forgiven each year, to a maximum of $80,000.

Hickman said the program should be expanded to those who've practiced in rural areas for five or six years.

That might be worthwhile: A study in the latest Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association says retention is an issue for rural practitioners. Those who'd left said emergency duty, time off, salary, practice atmosphere and family were issues.

A new U.S. Department of Agriculture program offers more rural practice incentives. Its details are being finalized, but it will offer loan forgiveness to veterinarians in areas determined to be underserved.

Even urban areas have a lack of veterinarians in large-animal practices, said Greg Seiler, whose clinic is in Andale.

"They're closing up shop everywhere," he said, noting that Kingman County, Winfield and Clearwater are among places that have lost all or most of their veterinarians.

Most job offers are still in companion animal practices, Richardson said, and as metropolitan areas continue to grow, that trend will continue.

Public health effects

But shortages are looming in public health.

In Manhattan, veterinarians will be needed to help staff the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, a $450 million facility where scientists will research and develop vaccines for deadly biological threats, including foot-and-mouth disease.

Also to be built in Manhattan is the Arthropod-Borne Animal Disease Research Laboratory, which works with livestock diseases spread by insects and arachnids.

And K-State will get $12 million over the next six years as a Center of Excellence for Emerging and Zoonotic Animal Diseases.

In addition, Richardson said, dozens of private companies working in animal health have set up shop in a corridor running from Manhattan to Kansas City.

"Our region... will experience great growth in employment opportunities" as a result of the public health facilities, he said.

"We need to start right now, getting those students trained."