When a cow is in labor with her calf emerging backward, she’s not the happiest of crea- tures. But, the veterinarian attending to her might be.For these doctors, the privilege of usher- ing new life into the world never gets old.
There’s fulfillment in putting years of training to use in a crisis. And there’s motivation in treating 1,000 pounds of someone else’s money-making potential because they are assisting
a living creature deserving respect and relief.
Food-animal veterinarians themselves are a breed deserving respect.
The labor is physical, the hours long and the drives can
be even longer to care for animals whose finest hour isn’t
spent curled at your feet or trotting along suburban sidewalks.
These doctors serve the animals that serve us — with food
and as food.
However, there aren’t enough of them and that’s a prevailing concern for the profession and for public health. The
American Veterinary Medical Foundation created a program to
help, providing life-changing student-loan debt relief in hopes
of anchoring professionals in rural areas — one doctor at a
“This is a lifestyle, no doubt. I know I have felt more cowboy than veterinarian at times,” says AVMF Chairman Clark
Fobian, DVM. “But the food-animal veterinarian’s job is crucial. If a livestock producer doesn’t have access to adequate
medical care, he’ll go to the feed store, go online or try to
treat things himself.
“Your vet is the first line of defense. If there’s a serious
disease or outbreak, you can bet it started as one case, on
one farm. The speed with which it is diagnosed and contained is dependent on that vet.”
The issue of having enough food-animal veterinarians has as
many offshoots as a winding country road.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated
218 food-animal veterinary shortage situations across the
country, each area documented and nominated by a state animal health official. That’s up from 2010, and expected to rise
again in 2012. In 2000, the term “shortage” was used within
the American Veterinary Medical Association. The Foundation
is the philanthropic arm of the AVMA, which represents more
than 82,500 veterinarians working in private and corporate
practice, government, industry, military and academia.
New figures are due this year. However, it’s now agreed
that the problem isn’t just doctor supply. It’s also doctors’
geography, says AVMF Executive Director Michael Cathey.
“All this relates to the safety of our food and public
health,” Cathey says. “That can get lost in these discussions,
but it shouldn’t.”
Among the factors contributing to food-animal veterinarian
• Women now make up 75 percent of veterinary school
students, according to the AVMF. Some believe men who
invest that much post-graduate time and money in medi-
cine are now more apt to be drawn toward the profits of
practicing human medicine. The food-animal specialty
has traditionally been a man’s domain in part because of
the physical demands of the job. There’s also a percep-
tion that if a woman veterinarian has a family and wants
to work part time, such a schedule can be more easily
accommodated working in a companion-animal practice
than crisscrossing farmland.
• There’s a perception, and sometimes reality, that being a
food-animal doctor means taking longer to repay student
loans, make a profit and establish a practice. If a veterinarian’s spouse also needs to work, it can be more diffi-