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, American Public Media's show known for its inclusion in the early morning and late afternoon NPR lineup. 

As all NPR junkies know, Marketplace rolls up all the economic news into an hour-long, rush-hour radio show. Hence, it doesn’t get much of a chance to provide the kind of in-depth profiles of big or little economic events and issues deserve. This time, the brevity likely killed this segment, titled, "Keeping Large Animal Vets on the Farm." So says this would-be large animal veterinarian and avid veterinary industry watcher. 

That’s why I wrote Marketplace a little note for their (and your) consideration:

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 alone may do a disservice to the larger issues at play. Indeed, veterinarians have many reasons for electing a career in agriculture species and its 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:

1. Rural Life

Food animal veterinarians are almost invariably required to relocate to rural areas. Suburban life and its amenities are nearly irresistible to the family inclined and lifestyle oriented among us. Despite its lower cost of 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 both be met.

2. Gender

Often overlooked is the role of gender bias in food animal settings. Because more than 75% 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 is lacking for women who may elect a career in animal agriculture. 

3. Opportunity

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

4. 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 afforded 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. 

How can a veterinarian raised on the love of animals (whose own shelter pet may have been treated for lymphoma, for example) be expected to choose a career where economic considerations almost exclusively dictate how animals are treated? 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 of first-hand knowledge of how food comes to the table, is it so surprising that its work force also suffers from the effects of this extreme division of labor? After all, the same cultural constructs that set our social classes into an ever-widening, chasmic 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% 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 points head-on. But what are you missing?

Lest any doubt remain, 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.

That is, unless the prevailing forces provided a drain on supply through a greater demand in a more attractive, allied market (for small animals) and unless parallel market forces spoke to an overtaxed industry struggling to make do with its current [inexpensive, underpaid] work force.

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 about the financial differential. It’s mostly because of the reasons I’ve profiled here. Nonetheless, it’s also because the economics in animal agriculture are geared towards inexpensive 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 former, more global and culturally relevant issues would nonetheless continue to drive the divide. 

Attacking the problem through government intervention via loan relief––which is ultimately, a subsidy for the animal agriculture industry––is not the long-term solution. Addressing the system-wide issues of the animal agriculture industry by way of mitigating the cultural issues that should by all accounts be forcing its hand, is the true path to food safety and 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. Email me for a detailed list of how we should start. And now, I’ll take my comments off the air.


Dr. Patty Khuly