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So. Datoka, US: Veterinarians say shortage could pose human health risk

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  • So. Datoka, US: Veterinarians say shortage could pose human health risk


    Veterinarians say shortage could pose human health risk
    South Dakota has 17 counties where there are least 25,000 ranch animals and no large-animal vets
    By Katie Brown and Barbara Soderlin, Journal staff Tuesday, May 06, 2008

    There are more veterinarians in South Dakota than ever before, but some vets and ranchers say there still aren't enough to get the job done, contributing to a national problem that is putting animals and people at risk.

    Demand from customers and the economics of running a practice have vets spending more time with cats, dogs and hamsters and less with horses and cattle, leaving some to fear the shortage could put the state at risk for a disease outbreak. Nationally, experts say, the situation is a crisis in animal care and public health is in danger because there aren't enough vets to monitor the food supply.

    "The demographics have changed. Our culture, our values have changed in society," Sam Holland, South Dakota's state veterinarian, said.

    People are willing to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to care for a sick "companion animal," he said, but the economics of running a business mean sometimes a rancher is better off cutting his losses than paying to tend a sick animal.

    Veterinarian Sandra Holcomb and her husband, rancher Larry Nelson, president of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, live in Buffalo in Harding County, where Holcomb is the only large-animal vet.

    She bought a Spearfish veterinary practice a few years ago to help subsidize her large-animal practice.

    A lack of people interested in going into veterinary medicine, the public image of the profession, the increasing number of women in the field, an aging work force, competition with feed stores, and low pay for the responsibility are among the factors that contribute to the increasing shortage of large-animal doctors, Holcomb and others said.

    That doesn't stop people such as Holcomb who love the job, being outside, helping in an emergency and working with animals.

    But it worries her.

    "We know there's going to be a shortage," she said. "If we have a major disease outbreak in this country, there won't be enough large-animal veterinarians to handle it."

    Vets work on the ranch and as inspectors at slaughterhouses, making sure animals are healthy when they arrive and checking for symptoms that indicate disease.

    The American Veterinary Medical Association studied the issue last year and said South Dakota has 17 counties where there are least 25,000 ranch animals and no large-animal vets. In West River, those included Butte, Shannon, Ziebach, Corson and Dewey counties. Residents of some of those counties countered that they have vets who tend large animals; however, the AVMA said their study counts only veterinarians who are members of their association and who work at least 30 percent with food animals.

    Newell rancher Jeff Smink said he hasn't had a problem getting a vet when he needs one, which is maybe a dozen times a year.

    "Here in the Northern Hills, where there's more population, there's more vets around," Smink said. "There's four or five different vets from Belle to Newell to Sturgis to St. Onge."

    "We're very careful not to necessarily say that there is a specific problem in a specific state," said David Kilpatrick, spokesman for the AVMA. "But certainly, what we are saying is that as a nation, we are facing a critical situation when it comes to the number of veterinarians who are graduating from veterinary school and choosing careers in food safety and/or food animal veterinary medicine."

    Veterinarians in the area say they're cutting back on large-animal practice.

    Dakota Hills Veterinary Clinic vet Shan Collett, who specializes in equine medicine, said there is less demand for cattle vets and fewer graduates to hire to do that work.

    "Being a beef-cattle vet is probably the most physically demanding job of all the areas of practice that you could go into," Collett said.

    The drop in large-animal vets comes despite a slow growth in the total number of vets licensed to practice in South Dakota, at 725 in 2007, up from 663 in 1999.

    Russ Daly, Extension veterinarian for South Dakota State University, said the school still sees a lot of pre-vet students interested in large-animal medicine.

    "It's stayed strong," Daly said.

    But he said out of about 100 pre-vet students starting at SDSU each year, only about half will actually go on to veterinary school. Many switch majors, some fail to get into vet school after graduation and some choose to use their animal-science or biological-science degree in a different way.

    He said SDSU has taken some new steps toward keeping pre-vet students in the program.

    Those include offering students extra help in pre-vet classes such as chemistry and biology.

    "We are trying to say, 'Here are ways you can get help and keep yourself on the path to eventually apply to vet school,'" Daly said.

    He said SDSU veterinary instructors also expose students to large-animal and food-animal medicine, letting them know it can be an interesting and rewarding profession.

    There are only 28 veterinary medicine schools in the United States, and they produce about 2,500 graduates each year. The number hasn't grown because there is a lack of resources to expand the schools, according to the AVMA.

    Daly said surveys that SDSU has conducted on animal-science students show that many choose not to go on to veterinary school because they do not want to go to college for that long.

    Some go into related fields including animal nutrition or breeding or production agriculture.

    "Many are still very production ag-based and become farmers and ranchers themselves," Daly said.

    Daly said vet students who come from a farm or ranch background are more likely to go into food-animal veterinary medicine.

    "The thing we're concerned about is that as our population shifts to a more urban population that we'll lose those students who are interested in food-animal medicine," he said. "We need to retain as many of those as we can, while hopefully garnering more interest in those large-animal fields even from students who do not have that background."

    Rapid City veterinarian Wesley Wood grew up with animals on a Belle Fourche ranch and said going into the field was something he had wanted to do for as long as he can remember.

    The practice he is part of is "vastly" different than when he joined it after graduating from Iowa State University, he said.

    "Being in Rapid City, now we're swinging more and more and more toward small-animal medicine."

    He said the practice sees 75 percent cats and dogs and 25 percent large animals -- the opposite of when he arrived.

    "Rapid City is expanding," he said. "The houses push cattle out."

    Wood's practice hired two new graduates last year, one from Iowa State and one from Kansas State, both with more than $100,000 of education-related debt. Wood said it was easier for him to hire them than it would have been for a rural practice because he can offer more steady pay and fewer on-call hours.

    Although he isn't sure how the change in demographics will affect the state on a larger scale, "It's definitely going to become an issue for those smaller communities."