Jacksonville (Ill.) Journal Courier

Large-animal veterinarians at a premium in region

Dave Dawson, Reporter

The number of veterinarians practicing in rural areas is declining at the same time veterinary schools are turning out more graduates than ever. The result is fewer veterinarians available to care for large farm animals.

"It's a geography problem," said Dr. Jim Lowe, an associate professor and interim assistant dean at the University of Illinois' College of Veterinary Medicine.

"We are seeing the same thing in human medicine. Getting doctors to practice in Jacksonville is harder than getting them in Naperville. They are identical trends," Lowe said. “It's an issue of where they grow up. If they grow up in a rural area, they usually return to a rural area."

When Dr. Joseph Koch started practicing in Jacksonville in 1989, he only tended large farm animals. Now he uses Wednesday, a day he would normally take off, as the day to care for large animals.

"Our business is now about 10 percent large animal. That's not an uncommon trend over the last 20 to 30 years," said Koch who owns Lincoln Land Animal Clinic with his wife, Dr. Colleen Koch.

"We used to do farm calls all day. Now I am seeing small animals all day, except for the one day each week I do large animal calls. We work in emergencies as best we can," Koch said.

The shortage of food-animal veterinarians in rural areas is a serious challenge confronting the livestock and poultry industries.

"Veterinarians are a critical link in the food supply chain," said U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde Smith, R-Mississippi, in a recent opinion column in the Washington Post. "They are on the front lines of treating and preventing the spread of animal diseases, keeping our food safe and helping ensure that diseases don't jump from animals to humans."

Lowe said supplying rural areas with veterinarians is a simple problem with a difficult solution.

"It's demographics. The students we accept into veterinary school mirror the applicant pool, so we are taking a slice of what is there," Lowe said.

"People tend to migrate back to communities like the ones they grew up in. If we have a lower number of applications from rural areas, it trickles down into fewer people wanting to get into a rural practice," Lowe said.

For Koch, one of his biggest challenges is looking into the future and trying to get a veterinarian into his practice who is willing to work with both large and small animals.

Koch became a partner in the practice in the early 1990s. The practice continued to grow, and Jacksonville native Dr. Jennifer Artis joined in 2011, affirming Lowe's analysis of where people choose to work.

Artis graduated from Jacksonville High School and Illinois College and worked at the clinic before veterinary school. She graduated from the University of Illinois' College of Veterinary Medicine and returned to Jacksonville.

Lowe said the urban and suburban practices see mostly small animals, while rural veterinarians  are going to see everything from small animals to horses, pigs and cows.

Fewer veterinarians have resulted in producers doing more of their own veterinary care. Lowe said many farmers are doing what veterinarians were doing 40 years ago.

"A lot of the routine care for large animals is being done by producers. They are quite capable of doing that. We give them guidelines to follow so they can raise animals that are safe for the public. We give guidance on medications," Koch said.

"We help with programs to set up processing at once so they can get the care needed to go to specific markets. We also handle emergencies such as sick animals," Koch said.

"The challenge is veterinarians cover a wider area. And now the drive is getting longer because they are covering a wider area. If there is an emergency, it might take an hour to get there instead of just 10 minutes," Lowe said.

There is more training available for producers who want to be less reliant on a veterinarian. There are calf-birthing simulators to train producers, Lowe said, adding most producers have calved a lot of cows, so most already know what they need to do.

Lowe said the struggle with veterinarians is similar to issues such as a dwindling number of grocery stores in smaller communities.

"Where I grew up in Henry County, veterinarians used to be a part of the professional communities like school administrators, bankers and doctors. If you don't have a veterinarian, you lose a fabric of the community. It's one of those things that helped keep rural community vibrant," Lowe said.

The number of people going to vet school is not the issue. There were 4,500 veterinary school graduates last year in the U.S. Lowe said class sizes are bigger and schools are producing more veterinarians than ever.

"Just look at pet ownership. The standard of care has increased and the demands on veterinarians have increased. They can't serve as many pets because the standard has raised. In the suburbs, there are more people willing to pay more to treat pets," Lowe said.

"You can practice a high level of medicine in an urban area, and it pays very well. As the rural population shrinks, fewer people are going into veterinary practice in rural areas," Lowe said.

Recruiting efforts are going on, but it's not the schools doing the recruiting, but rather veterinarians and professional groups for large animals that have been pushing it.

"We are trying to be creative to help students build relationships early in their veterinary career," Lowe said. "We're trying to partner with local practitioners and have them help pay for a student's final year of tuition if that student works there for a period of time."

Lowe said his career has gone from doing less and teaching more to help producers solve problems.

"If I'm running a syringe, I've done something terribly wrong. We can teach our producers to do that and ensure they are giving the right shot. It's a teaching moment, not a doing moment," Lowe said.

"The veterinarian shortage in rural America is a real deal," Lowe said. "It's not just in Illinois, but all over the United States."

A U.S. Department of Agriculture map at bit.ly/3l2LzyD shows see rural areas in Illinois where the lack of veterinarians is a serious concern.