© 2024 KGOU
Photo of Lake Murray State Park showing Tucker Tower and the marina in the background
News and Music for Oklahoma
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Shortage Of Large-Animal Vets Leaves Markets Vulnerable To Disease Outbreaks


In rural towns across the country, there's a shortage of veterinarians for farm animals. The pay is low. The hours are long. And it can be hard to get vets to work in areas where there are more cows than people. This is a problem that could leave farmers and the U.S. food supply vulnerable. Harvest Public Media's Esther Honig has our report.

ESTHER HONIG: Inside a sun-soaked barn in Brush, Colo., Dr. Karen Chandler visits with her first patient of the morning.


HONIG: Well, actually, there's 38 of them. These newborn calves are here for their first checkup.


HONIG: One by one, the calves are restrained and lifted onto a metal table. First they're vaccinated. Then they're branded with a hot iron. Chandler, a large animal vet, castrates the bulls.


KAREN CHANDLER: They're going to be fine. They'll be a little sore. But they'll be back with Mom, and they'll be nursing in 20 minutes. And they'll be fine.

HONIG: This is what preventative medicine for cows looks like. And it benefits more than just the animal and farmer.

CHANDLER: Everything we do for our cattle is for the promotion of happy, healthy cattle. And that ends up with happy, healthy people.

HONIG: Chandler is 30 and only four years into her career. She wears jeans with rhinestones on the pockets and tucks her long, curly hair under a baseball cap. In this rural Colorado town, she's the first line of defense against diseases like tuberculosis that can spread from animals to humans. If a herd shows signs of a potentially dangerous illness, it's up to Chandler to diagnose and warn public health officials.

But more and more young veterinarians are choosing to live in the city instead and chiefly treat dogs and cats. Jobs like Chandler's attract few applicants. First of all, they require long days and odd hours.

CHANDLER: Horses colic in the middle of the night. Pigs get born at 6 a.m., and you can't get your kids to school on time.

HONIG: And as someone who grew up in the city, she says she's had to adjust to rural life. She misses great Italian restaurants. The biggest hurdle is paying off her student loans.

JOHN DE JONG: The major contributor to the shortages is student debt.

HONIG: That's John de Jong, who heads the American Veterinary Medical Association. He and other industry leaders say few veterinarians can now afford to work in rural areas. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those in rural areas earn between 60 to $70,000 a year, about half of what they could make in a big city. While that may seem like a lot, the average debt load from school tops $140,000.

DE JONG: Which leaves them with not a lot of money for rent, or mortgage, or food or going out to a movie.

HONIG: Karen Chandler couldn't have accepted this job if she hadn't been selected for a highly competitive loan forgiveness program by the USDA. After three years of serving this high-needs rural area, her debt will be lowered by $75,000. She sees her job as being a part of something bigger, like when she inspects animals before they're sold for slaughter.

CHANDLER: Every day that I'm out here at the sale barn on Thursday mornings, my thought is, would I want my niece to eat this at school? And if I don't think I'd want my niece to eat that at school, it doesn't walk through our sale room.

HONIG: So for her, working as a large-animal veterinarian provides a sense of stewardship, both for animals and for food safety. For NPR News, I'm Esther Honig in Greeley, Colo.

SHAPIRO: And that story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focusing on agriculture and rural issues.


Esther Honig
More News
Support nonprofit, public service journalism you trust. Give now.