On Becoming A Food Animal Vet In Modern America

Veterinary students are less willing to tackle the hardships of a career in veterinary medicine now that the economic forces on earning a buck off the backs of food animals are skewed against them.

So says “Marketplace,” which rolls up all the economic news into an irresistible, abbreviated rush-hour show on National Public Radio. Hence, it doesn’t get much of a chance to provide the depth that many economic events and issues deserve.

That’s why I wrote “Marketplace” a little note about its brief treatment of a rare veterinary segment.


Dear Marketplace:

Thank you for addressing the issues surrounding the dwindling supply of food animal veterinarians in this country. Americans deserve to understand the complexity involved in bringing animals to the dinner table. Showcasing my profession’s often overlooked role in the process is an excellent way to do that.

However, as a veterinarian who once strongly considered entering the field of food animal medicine, I’m concerned that your focus on the economic factors may do a disservice to the larger issues at play. Indeed, veterinarians have many reasons for electing a career in agriculture medicine and it is my view that financial concerns play a second fiddle to these.

Apart from the longer hours and tougher work conditions you cite, consider the following four para-economic reasons why veterinarians I know have chosen the path of small-animal medicine after seriously entertaining a career in food animal practice:

Rural Life
Food animal veterinarians are almost invariably required to relocate to rural areas. Yet suburban life and its amenities are generally considered irresistible to the family-inclined and lifestyle-oriented among us, especially to those of us raised in these environments.

Despite the lower cost of rural living, the rise of the suburbs and the decline of rural America play heavily into veterinary graduate decision making, especially now that the average family boasts two working family members whose professional goals must be met.

Gender bias in food animal settings is often overlooked. Because more than 75 percent of veterinary students are women, and because the overwhelming majority of faculty, employers, colleagues, clients and industry leaders are men, women are subject to both actual and perceived gender biases in food animal medicine.

Mentorship, support and encouragement are often lacking for women who may elect a career in animal agriculture.

For students with above-average academic drive and professional ambition, food animal medicine offers fewer opportunities. The financial upside, professional challenges and enhanced respect afforded by specialization are not readily available in agricultural medicine, but they are commonplace in companion animal medicine.

Animal Welfare
Given the rapid evolution of high-tech veterinary medicine for small animals, consider that how we treat pigs and cows no longer compares to the individualized attention provided our dogs and cats. This dichotomy not only affects the outlook of student veterinarians on the basis of medical technology, it inevitably plays into animal welfare considerations, too.

After all, how can a veterinarian raised on the love of animals be expected to choose a career where economic considerations almost exclusively dictate how animals are treated? And where quality of care means a questionably better product whose healthy, marketed remains are the proof of success?

For a culture that’s increasingly divorced from first-hand knowledge of how food comes to the table, is it so surprising that its veterinary workforce also suffers from the effects of this extreme division of labor? The same cultural constructs that set our social classes into an ever-widening economic divide are the very ones that influence how the “educated classes” are likely to perceive animal agriculture.

Concentrating, as Marketplace does, on the economic issues inherent to any subject is understandable. That’s your job. But the reality is far more interesting (and useful) when the larger forces are revealed.

Exposing the depth of veterinary student financial difficulties in this case is critical. Explaining the 20 percent gap in starting salaries for food vs. companion animal medicine is indispensable. Detailing the lack of funding for loan relief in agricultural medicine is telling. I thank you for tackling these three points head-on. But what are you missing?

Nothing cuts to the quick of the issue like a swift jab at the cultural underpinnings of any dramatic shift in supply and demand. After all, were industrial animal medicine to respond to the shortage of veterinarians as any other rational market does, food animal doctors would be worth far more than the average small-animal veterinarian.

Why else would an agriculturally minded veterinarian like me raise chickens and goats in her back yard while practicing small-animal medicine for a living? It’s not just personal interest. It’s not even the earnings differential. It’s mostly because of the reasons I’ve profiled here. It’s also because the economics in animal agriculture are geared toward inexpensive proteinaceous foodstuff at almost all costs.

It’s therefore my view that were the latter situation remedied through regulatory intervention leading to more realistic financial compensation for food animal veterinarians, the more global and culturally relevant issues would nonetheless continue to drive the divide.

Attacking the problem through government intervention via loan relief, as our veterinary leaders have proposed, is ultimately a subsidy for animal agriculture. And, therefore, it’s not the long-term solution. Addressing the system-wide issues of the animal agriculture industry by way of mitigating the cultural issues is the true path to food safety and to ameliorating the veterinary shortage in food animal medicine.

Nothing short of a dramatic shift in agriculture practices will address these persistent problems. That’s what this would-have-been food animal veterinarian believes it’ll take. E-mail me for a detailed list of how we should start.

And now, I’ll take my comments off the air.

Dr. Patty Khuly


Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, is a small-animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at www.dolittler.com. She earned her veterinary degree in 1995 and her business degree from Wharton in 1997.


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