By Rick Dandes
The Daily Item
DANVILLE — A shift in veterinary school enrollment that shows four of five graduates are women may factor into the shortage of large-animal caregivers, according to a Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association spokeswoman.
The large-animal, production-animal and food-animal industry faces fewer veterinarians willing to take on the less-lucrative and more isolated side of their profession, and that’s “very scary, considering agriculture is Pennsylvania’s number one industry, because it calls food safety into question,” said Lori Raver, of the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association.
While unable last week to provide statistics, she said there is a shortage of large-animal veterinarians.
“There is no lack of vets who want to work in cities and treat companion animals” such as cats and dogs, she said.
Veterinary medicine was once a predominantly male profession, but today women comprise 80 percent of graduating classes. Large-animal medicine is often not as attractive to young women because they want to have families and large animal medicine is pretty much on call all the time, Raver said.
“Also, many times veterinarians don’t want to live in super-rural locales in order to be where the farms are,” Raver said. “In addition, because fewer people are born on farms or in rural areas as with previous generations, there isn’t the connection to farms that there used to be. There are some counties with no large-animal veterinarians at all.”
Which is not the case in Montour and Northumberland counties, where Dr. Lloyd Reitz practices out of Danville’s Alpine and St. Francis Animal Hospital.
Part of the problem is pay, said Reitz, 33.
“The truth is that when you come out of veterinarian school, most of us are carrying a large debt,” Reitz said. “Now, I grew up on my parents’ dairy farm in Irish Valley, so it is only natural that I have felt comfortable treating both smaller companion pets as well as cows, horses, chickens, rabbits, birds, reptiles, pot bellied pigs, ferrets, raccoons, skunks and pocket pets.”
But companion-animal medicine pays better, has more regular hours and much more flexibility, Reitz said.
Incentives help with loan repayment to recent graduates who agree to do large-animal work in a particular area that is in need, but the commitments are generally no longer than five years. When the commitment expires, it’s hit-or-miss as to whether the veterinarians stay or move on.
Reitz, though, is firmly committed to his rural practice.
Dr. James Temple, of the Sunbury Animal Hospital, offered another reason why there are fewer veterinarians treating large animals.
“I grew up on a farm,” he said. “And when I graduated from veterinarian school, most of the grads came from rural, farm backgrounds. Statistics now indicate that most modern graduates don’t have that rural background and so it’s no wonder they don’t naturally gravitate toward treating horses or cows.”
Treating dairy cattle is a large, lucrative part of his practice, Temple said. A number of his clients are Amish, so he also cares for horses.
“Certainly, dealing with these larger animals, and doing rural farm work is a lifestyle choice,” said Reitz, who travels to farms to care for the animals. Much of his work is devoted to preventing illnesses in large animals.
“I have regular clients that I visit on a regular basis to make sure that every cow in the herd is healthy,” Reitz said.
He also treats smaller and exotic animals.
“I have a mixed animal practice,” he said. “It’s very hard to resist the more lucrative parts of the business. And I wouldn’t want to. But having grown up on a farm, I understand how important it is to the livelihood of farms to keep their animals healthy and productive.”
Reitz’s most unusual patient was a snake, he said.
“I have worked with other reptiles, like turtles,” he said. “It’s something we learn to deal with at school. And it sure makes my work interesting.”