FRESNO, Calif. - The number of veterinarians who work with cows, pigs, chickens and other farm animals is on the decline as many prepare to retire and fewer students opt for large animal practice, results from a recent study showed.
Current vets said they already drive for hours to meet with clients, and officials are worried about the impact on food safety, as large-animal veterinarians serve as inspectors at ranches and slaughterhouses.
"They're basically on the front line when it comes to maintaining a safe food supply, not only in the U.S., but in products we export. Vets diagnose diseases that can be transferred from animals to humans, " said David Kirkpatrick, spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association. Results of a survey conducted by the group were released last month.
The study found that only 2 percent of veterinary school students in 2010 graduating class said they planned to work mostly with large, non-pet animals. Another 7 percent studied a mixed curriculum that included all types of animals but the majority of responses leaned toward practicing pet care.
"We have known for years anecdotally that vets were having a difficult time finding people to work at their practice or selling it when they retire, " Kirkpatrick said.
"But now we know how big the problem is and how that will magnify over the years, " he said.
From 1998 to 2009, the number of small animal vets climbed to 47, 118 from 30, 255, while the number of farm-animal vets dropped to 5, 040 from 5, 553. And the AVMA found that large animal vets often earn a lower salary: an average of $57, 745 compared to $64, 744 for small-animal vets, according to a 2008 survey.
The large-animal vet world is graying - half of farm-animal vets are older than 50, and only 4.4 percent are younger than 30. About a third of the veterinarians working at the federal level are eligible to retire in the next three years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
At least six rural counties in California have just one large-animal veterinarian.
Stuart Hall, 28, a veterinarian in Visalia, Calif., said a single call can tie him up for four hours - time in which he can't respond to emergencies.
"My worry is always that a farmer is going to try to take care of something themselves, " he said.
Hall was born in rural England and educated in London before his interest in working with cows brought him to Tulare County, the nation's largest dairy producer, five years ago. He and his wife have a blog detailing his life as a farm vet.