Yesterday, NPR’s afternoon news ran a four-minute interview with Dr. Gregory Hammer, our newly minted king of the AVMA. He was bemoaning the state of the profession’s stale vet school applicant pool—especially when it comes to food animal medicine and public health.

Sure, we have plenty of applicants to fill the seats, but it’s nowhere near the ten to one ratio of apps to admitteds we had back when I was pulling all-nighters on a regular basis. Which begs the question: Does one still have to pull all-nighters to ratchet up those grades now that the ratio’s slipped to three to one? And what does this change portend for animal care in general?

Since 90% of applicants are vying for small animal positions (compared to something far closer to 50% 30 years ago) these numbers don’t bode as badly for our pets as for our food supply. While low applications to vet school might mean small animal vets have less competitive college grades, the waning interest in large animal medicine implies a crunching shortage of food animal doctors. And that’s a frightening reality we’re already facing.

In his interview, Dr. Hammer’s explanation for this phenomenon of low-ag interest was initially two-pronged. He cited the decreasingly rural US population and the increasingly feminized veterinary profession. He actually went as far as to note that women don’t like large animal medicine—we’d rather take care of dogs, cats and pocket pets. (He actually said “pocket pets” on national radio.)

OK, so I was offended. But I’m also somewhat sensitive to this issue (female vet that I am). The increasing womanization of vet medicine is often decried by many among our ranks for decreasing our profession’s earning potential, for lowering standards for vet school graduates and even for blunting the interest of potential male applicants who might see vet medicine as a bastion of femininity. And now, we’re even implicated in the shortage of large animal doctors. See? I’m a tad sensitive.

As we speak, the AVMA is convening to discuss the issue of declining apps (among many others), hence the timing of the NPR spot. This year, the AVMA convention is in D.C., a perfect location for the relentless politicking and scientific lecture-mongering which annually ensues. I would have loved to attend, it’s just that the price tag on the airfare and hotel competed poorly with my credit card and mortgage payments...not to mention my student loan debt.

I disclose the sad state of my finances here since this is where I believe all the teeth gnashing and hand-wringing should be focused when addressing this critical issue. Our AVMA leaders should leave the shoulders of an innocent female vet population alone—we have enough weight to carry without having to bear the strain of an increasingly non-rural American life and the heft of the economic factors ultimately at fault for the dearth of vets in large animal careers.

Here’s my reasoning: If vets didn’t get out of school making a paltry $50K a year (I’m being generous) while carrying a debt load of over $100K, perhaps more potential vets would take a shot at life in the world of animal health. Factor in that large animal vets have historically made less (in spite of their dwindling numbers) and often hail from lower-income rural locales, and you have a recipe for diminished interest. As it stands, selling cattle feed generates more annual income…without all the hard core education and astronomical debt.

It’s not surprising to me that applications have fallen across the 28 vet schools nationwide. The vet profession may be seem sexy, but that all gets spun in the opposite direction once the college career counselors have their say on the almighty debt to income ratio. Just imagine what that conversation might sound like in…say…rural Nebraska.

To be fair, Dr. Hammer did speak to the economic issues involved and cited these within the AVMA’s plan of attack. It’s currently backing a bill that will address the shortage of food animal, public health and anti-bioterrorism specialized veterinarians by seeking loan forgiveness and/or tuition reimbursement for those who pledge to serve rural communities, agriculture concerns or public health initiatives. And that seems fair…and wise.

But as a female vet who still contemplates a career in animal agriculture (yes, goats), I can’t help but get my hackles up when someone tells me my like tends to prefer “pocket pets” to the bigger guys. Throw some loan forgiveness my way and perhaps we’ll see what I’ll prefer…or not.