Friday, July 20, 2007

The Shortage in Large Animal Veterinarians

Earlier this week, I listened to an NPR interview of the newly elected President of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Gregory Hammer. Dr. Hammer discussed, among other things, the diminishing pool of applicants to veterinary school who want to become large animal veterinarians. More applicants than in the past are interested in treating companion animals rather than “food supply” animals, and this change has contributed to a shortage of medical practitioners for livestock. Dr. Hammer had some interesting theories about why things have changed, including the fact that fewer people live near farms or have any familiarity with the sorts of animals found on farms.

I have a different theory that probably does not account for much of the variance but provides a more hopeful philosophical account, from my perspective. I believe that there is something inherently paradoxical about a “food supply” veterinarian. The job of a doctor is to help heal her patients when they are ill and relieve their suffering when they are in pain. People who have a companion animal bring him or her to the vet out of love and attachment, the way we would do for any family member. And the veterinarian's practice revolves around accommodating that loving approach.

When my dog ate several boxes of raisins (toxic to dogs’ kidneys), for example, my veterinarian induced vomiting and kept her on an I.V. for days. And when she had a urinary tract infection, he prescribed antibiotics (the canine equivalent of amoxicillin). Dr. Fried is warm and affectionate toward my dog and has taken good care of all three canine wonders who have enriched my life over the years. He cares about and values his patients (independently of their relationship to their “owner”/parent).

“Food supply” animals are brought into existence and killed for their flesh (or first used for their reproductive fluids and later killed for their flesh). Farmers hire veterinarians to maintain these animals in a condition that will best serve this ultimate objective of creating marketable food. When a farmer hires a veterinarian to deliver a baby calf, for example, the point is to help facilitate the mother cow’s production of milk and to usher in the ingredients of veal. The “food supply” veterinarian may sincerely love animals, as James Herriot, author of “All Creatures Great and Small” appeared to. But he is invited into the lives of animals as a kind of mechanic, there to fix a machine that has temporarily broken down, not to heal a patient who has value in and of herself.

For an admittedly imperfect but useful analogy, consider the psychiatrist hired to restore a death row inmate to competency -- sufficient mental health to enable the State to execute him lawfully. A movie that addressed this very subject, Dead Man Out, did a great job of showing the inherent contradiction of a doctor occupying this role. Though the psychiatrist – played by Danny Glover – begins the process of psychotherapy thinking he can treat his patient without thinking about what happens once the man becomes well, in the end, he finds this impossible and acts accordingly.

In light of this paradox, it may be that at least a few of the people deciding not to become “food supply” veterinarians have done so out of principle. They sense that it is wrong to participate in a process that is more cruel to more animals than anything else on the planet and that is so utterly indifferent to the interests and wellbeing of intelligent, emotional, and innocent creatures. They understand, I hope, that it is wrong even if – maybe especially if -- in the short term, one’s only objective is to alleviate animal suffering.

29 comments:

Tam said...

A friend of mine works at what must be one of the premier horse hospitals/clinics in the country (it's in Central/South Jersey), because their patients frequently include the likes of Barbaro. So I'm wondering if Dr. Hammer mentioned whether, among those who do go into large-animal care, there is a disproportionate tendency towards that subfield (rather than livestock)? If so, I think that would lend further support to your theory.

KipEsquire said...

There's an easier explanation: our federal farm welfare policy, which creates an excess supply of small farmers who need vet services but don't have the purchasing power to bid up the price of such services enough to lure vets away from companion animal practice.

Since the federal government subsidizes small famers but not vets, there are simply too many farmers chasing too few vets. It's comparable to monetary inflation.

Tam said...

Interesting; according to this NY Times article (cited by the blog Kipesquire linked to), "the shortage [of veteranarians] is not as critical for horses" as it is for food-animal vets.

Matt said...

A recent NY Times article (probably the one linked to by Tam) also pointed out that the pay for large animal vets (even for horse vets) is much lower than for small animal vets, it's a much more dangerous job, the work conditions are worse, (outside, in the mud and the animal dung, etc.) and you have to travel and be on call much more than a small animal vet. I'd guess that those aspects are by far the largest ones.

Michael C. Dorf said...

the question unaddressed by any of these comments (and unaddressed by Sherry's post, as she admits) is whether any of these phenomena are sufficiently new to explain what appears to be a change. i don't have an answer, either.

egarber said...
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egarber said...
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egarber said...

Not sure what this adds, but I'll throw in some personal experience.

For years we owned a horse named Amigo -- he's now retired on 16 acres. When he was active, my wife was a show-jumper; we'd travel around Georgia competing in horse shows.

We of course adore Amigo. So it was very tough when he got really sick a few years back. It turns out he didn't graze enough -- a common problem at barns where property is over-grazed -- and was too dependent on a grain diet. We took him up to the University of Georgia vet school, where he got 24 X 7 care.

Seeing how much the doctors poured their hearts into his treatment (along with the willingness of his regular vet to come out at any hour later on), I strongly suspect that Sherry's basic theory is correct on some level. These vets were not merely mechanics.

Jamison Colburn said...

I agree with Sherry's basic premise, of course. But I'm wondering about the wider implications for professional ethicists (OK, maybe Randy at the NYT Magazine is the proper party for this query). I'm thinking of a little dust-up Bill Simon had recently with another legal ethicist, Anthony Alfieri. It was over whether a "risk management" paradigm of legal ethics (enforced by insurers) is a good proxy for what has clearly evaporated: the lawyer-citizen at the helm of the firm. Bill thinks that what risk management and "loss prevention" lack in honor they make up for in teeth. Alfieri and others think this is just the replacement of professional ethics with bean counting. Knowing a little about that particular vet practice, I would hazard to say that beans have long since replaced patients. Some of the old timers find themselves practicing a form of "medicine" that hardly merits the name. So I was struck in reading Sherry's analysis suggests that new vets are--as my ethicist friend Andy Perlman would say--voting with their career choices and just choosing not to play an unethical game.

Matt said...

If I recall the NY Times article properly it claimed that the pay rate for large animal vs. small animal vet had basically switched over the last several years. (I might be mis-remembering, though.) Why this is I can't say, but I'd suspect it's partly the way people have come (for many reasons) to generally spend much more on pets than in the past (both in absolute and relative terms) and also the smaller number of people regularly taking part in animal husbandry and other changes in farm life, as noted by one of the other commenters. If this switch has taken place, it would help explain the change in vets.

shakerlake said...

"...whether any of these phenomena are sufficiently new to explain what appears to be a change."

There's one obvious cause to account for the shortage of large animal vets in the United States- the decline in the number of men becoming veterinarians. While vets were once mostly men, nowadays males make up only a small minority - about 15%- of people entering veterinary school. And because males have traditionally gravitated toward large-animal work, the decline in male vet students has come hand in hand with a decline in the number of newly minted large animal vets. Even though this is a very serious problem for the profession, most vet schools, perhaps muzzled by political correctness, have been unwilling to take the same steps (affirmative action, etc) in recruit males that they have taken to recruit other underrepresented groups, like blacks and Hispanics. The shortage of large-animal vets won't be rectified until vet schools tackle this gender gap in vet school enrollment.

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PG said...

shakerlake,
Or the schools could recruit strong women. It would be perfectly legitimate for a school to give advantage in admissions to someone who could bench press a week-old calf and who stated an intent to go into large-animal work. I'm not clear on why you feel compelled to base admissions on sex with no connection to the actual objective of increasing the number of large-animal vets.

John said...

pg- It's not an issue of women being less qualified- even a small woman can examine and treat a large farm animal that is properly sedated.

It's an issue of interest- men seem more drawn to large animal work than women. I'm not sure why- maybe working with cattle seems more "macho" than working with cats.

The underrepresentation of men in vet school, though, is a problem- it's gotten to the point where men who would otherwise be interested in vet school are refusing to apply, simply because they see so few people of their gender entering the profession.

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

A recent personal experience of mine is also relevant here - I was at a restaraunt last week with two acquaintences who are practicing vets, and I was surprised when both of them ordered meat. I asked them whether they saw any moral confict between eating meat and the duties of their profession. They said they didn't, and that most vets - both large and small animal - are not vegetarians.

(I was tempted to ask them to justify their seeming moral inconsistency in eating meat, but I didn't want to be rude.)

Anyway, interesting food for thought (no pun intended).

Sherry F. Colb said...

Very interesting comments and thoughts. John's point about veterinarians and vegetarians is compelling and may (I optimistically hope) change. I think there is a major inconsistency in "loving" some animals and consuming others who are not different in any morally relevant respect. The issue actually came up when when my dog's vet was recommending a particular dog food when she was sick, and I said we were going with a vegan dog food and that I wanted to know what we should avoid/seek within such constraints. About a year later, this veterinarian mentioned to us that he had recently decided to become a vegetarian. The inconsistency (which I suspect he ultimately found aversive), of course, is one lived by the many people who love their dogs and cats (and consider the idea of killing a dog or a cat for food or apparel to be outrageous and offensive) yet happily (and unnecessarily) eat the meat of animals who are as emotional and sentient as dogs are. For veterinarians, I think, there is just a heightened (or at least distinct) level of denial necessary to sustain the inconsistency.

egarber said...

Since I'm in Atlanta, I'll throw in a football angle.

I think the whole Michael Vick fiasco brings the same questions into view. There's a tremendous amount of justified disgust, especially as more stories come out about the extreme cruelty in this case. But if folks are going to be upset about that, shouldn't they cringe before mindlessly supporting slaughter in the name of food? In talking to my mom about the Falcons matter, she's considering dropping meat altogether from her diet.


Personally, I think it's possible to separate the two somewhat, and argue that the dog fighting nightmare crosses a heightened line.

But I can see conflict and tension, nonetheless.

John Q. Barrett said...

I suspect that another factor behind the decrease in large animal vets is how life has become, for most of us, especially as we grow up and have some of our defining experiences, much more urban/suburban than rural. In the first half of the 20th century, *many* kids grew up on or near farms or were connected to families that had farms and thus had contact with large animals. They became the generation that knew cows and (loved) horses. There's been a lot less of that since the 50s and 60s and forward, especially in circles where kids are getting good educations and aspiring to science-connected careers.

PG said...

john,

But one cannot assume that men would prefer being large animal vets to small animal vets. All of my bunny's vets have been male, and there's nothing very macho in that. Again, a much better alternative to sex discrimination is to advantage applicants who have expressed an interest in large animal care, perhaps even giving scholarships or better yet loan forgiveness on that basis, much as medical schools do for students who work in under-served areas.

Paul said...

There may be a simpler, but less poetic, answer. Large animal veterinarians live much much more dangerous lives. This is coupled with the increase in relative pay for pet vets as compared to farm vets over the last two decades.

If this is correct, there should be a market correction at some point. Actually, I suppose there will be a market correction in any event. High enough pay should be sufficient incentive for people who would not otherwise be predisposed to veterinary work to take it up. What will be interesting is when this market adjustment does take place, will small animal vets convert or will there simply be an influx of new vets motivated not by love of animals but instead by the prospect of a well compensated position? The relative trend should answer whether the shortage of farm vets is one of morality or risk/reward.

CThompson said...

As a student deeply invovled in the Food Supply Veterinary Medicine (FSVM) field it is suprising to see the many misconceptions that are at play regarding the working conditions, salary, and other aspects of FSVM are considered. Research into the salaries of FSVM vs companion animal practitioners illustrates that there is no wage gap shorting FSVM practitioners, often these doctors exhibit a higher annual income. Though many people believe that these doctors live in rural areas and make their living exclusively from herd management many of these practicing veterinarians are found throughout local, state, and federal government as well. The most concerning aspect of the depletion of available practitioners within FSVM is the increased globalization of our food supply, quality assurance of those products entering our market, and the increased threats of bioterrorism and agroterrorism. Wihtout actively practicing FSVM professionals our nation, communities, and even families are at risk of compromised quality when it comes to what's on our dinner table.

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