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Supply and demand

By Staff | Apr 16, 2010

Caitlyn Glick and Vicky Bochynek, both fourth-year medical students tend to a calf that was admitted to the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine for an umbilical infection.

AMES – Unemployment is nearly unheard of in veterinary medicine. It’s a career in which demand is exceeding supply, and the shortage could mean catastrophe on the farm and in the nation’s food supply.

Veterinarians do more than administer medicines to livestock or check out new puppies. They’re the first medical professionals to diagnose and contain diseases in animals that may spread to humans.

“Veterinarians are the first line of defense out there, and with a shortage there are not enough (vets) to recognize diseases that spread from farm to farm or enough to help watch the food supply,” said Dr. John U. Thompson, dean of Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

He said the main cause of the veterinarian shortage is a lack of expansion in the number of veterinary colleges and the capacity at the 28 existing colleges – a problem that dates back to the mid-1970s.

According to Thompson, schools of veterinary medicine can graduate about 2,500 students annually, which was the same as in 1975.

However, the U.S. population has grown by 85 million since that time, and it’s estimated there are about 75 million more dogs and about 88 million more cats that need care.

In addition, world population growth requires food supply protection. The earth’s population is expected to increase by up to 10 billion people by 2050. To help with people dying from hunger-related issues, a veterinarian’s role in food protein production is critical and growing, Thompson said.

Growing population, changes in the dynamics of agriculture and rural communities, and the increasing popularity of companion animals have combined to put pressure on veterinary colleges to produce more graduates, he said.

Iowa State’s College of Veterinary Medicine has increased class size from 105 to 120 students and began doing so in 2005 to try to help with the problem.

ISU has also added a cooperative agreement with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln which will allow for an additional 25 students, so by the time students finish their final two years of education at ISU, the increased number of graduates will be 145 a year.

Thompson said a new loan forgiveness program is starting this year that should help encourage more students to go into the field of veterinary medicine, but it won’t solve the shortage.

He added that the American Society of Veterinary Colleges has also been working for a number of years to expand the capacity of veterinary colleges.

Veterinarians, Thompson said, are also important when it comes to maintaining rural infrastructure.

“Veterinarians serve a role in communities that we don’t mention much. They and their families often end up being civic leaders,” said Thompson. “They are a service and most have a lot of respect in the community. A lot of times they are the most educated in the community. There’s a big interdependence because they rely on the community as well.”

Contact Kriss Nelson at jknelson@frontiernet.net.

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