Farm Animal Veterinarians on the Decline

The Associated Press
Monday, April 30, 2007; 4:55 AM

GUTHRIE CENTER, Iowa -- Public health experts are concerned that a shortage of farm animal veterinarians could lead to disease outbreaks, potentially endangering human health and risking the nation's food supply.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, a group with about 6,200 food animal vets, estimates the shortage at a relatively small 4 percent. But health officials say even the small gap increases the potential for diseases to go undetected.

"It's not like the other 96 percent can pick up the slack," said Dr. Lyle Vogel, director of the animal welfare division at the association, which used surveys to estimate the shortage. "Because of the distances and workload of the remaining veterinarians they just can't fill in that shortage."

Concerns have centered on more than 800 diseases that can spread from animals to humans, such as salmonella and E. coli. Experts also fear an inability to quickly diagnose conditions like foot and mouth disease and avian flu, said Robin Schoen, director of the Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources at the National Academy of Sciences.

"We're kind of weakening the whole system," Schoen said. "The veterinarian is the front line."

With fewer veterinarians, more duties are falling to farmers and ranchers, who often vaccinate animals, diagnose illnesses and administer antibiotics. Vets typically offer some training and do-it-yourself medicine can cut costs, but some worry that the long-term result will be an inability to detect diseases early or address outbreaks, especially in remote areas.

Experts said the veterinarian shortage could lead to several troubling scenarios:

_ Salmonella in an untreated dairy herd could be spread by workers who come into contact with feces. Similarly, people who defeather or slaughter chickens infected with a certain strain of avian flu could get others sick.

_ Diseases like anthrax are hard to detect and spread quickly, so a farmer likely wouldn't notice an illness until many animals were sick, potentially wiping out a whole herd.

_ Foot and mouth disease could enter the United States through imported animals or meat. Because the disease can spread rapidly by air, it could hit multiple producers if not detected, leading to a regional outbreak.

The shortage is blamed on graduates of veterinary schools who opt for the regular hours and assumed better pay of small animal medicine, though surveys indicate the pay difference is largely unfounded. There is no denying, however, that working with food animals can mean days and nights of messy, back-breaking work.

Doug Frels, a food animal vet for 20 years, earns about $75,000 a year, the same as his wife, who is a small animal vet. But he acknowledges many would rather work in a clinic than travel gravel roads, slop through slush and jostle with 500-pound cattle.

"There might be more lucrative things you could go into with less work and better hours," said Frels, of Guthrie Center, Iowa.

Veterinary schools try to attract students to food animal practices through promises of debt relief and programs that acquaint them with rural communities, but it's a hard sell.

"We're constantly faced with that challenge," said Dr. Raymond Sweeney, associate professor of large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania's veterinary school. "There's less and less people coming from a rural background, so they may not be aware of the importance of the food animal practitioner."

The shortage prompted the National Academy of Sciences to begin an 18-month study in March to identify gaps in veterinary care and look for ways to coordinate resources.

A pilot program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has been designed to deal with the problem. The program admits one student from each of the country's 28 veterinary schools to a course focused on handling emergency disease outbreaks.

Dr. Tracee Treadwell, a senior veterinarian at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who studies the spread of diseases between animals and humans, said getting more trained people out in the field is the only way to stop the spread of disease.

"The more smart, trained people you can have out there the better off we all are," she said.

© 2007 The Associated Press