Saturday, November 27, 2010

Large Animal Industries Scream for Medical Attention (While Committing Suicide?)

I recently read a November article in the Washington Post entitled "Vet Students Choosing Pets Over Farm Animals." It described how an AVMA survey of 2010-graduating vet students found that only 2% intended to work with large "non-pet" animals once in practice. According to the article, from 1998 to 2009, the number of small animal veterinarians increased from 30,255 to 47,118 while the number of farm animal vets dropped from 5,553 to 5,040. Three possible reasons for the small animal preference were mentioned in the article: the average companion animal salary is slightly higher, there is risk of greater physical injury in large animal medicine, and drives to farm call appointments are time-consuming.

The Post article explains how the large animal veterinarian shortage is being called a "food safety crisis." For this reason, pending federal legislation seeks to bolster the field of large animal medicine. In addition, at least some vet schools have changed admissions criteria in order to increase the number of students with large animal interest.   

I should point out that none of the large animal medicine disadvantages listed in the article represents the primary and simple reason most students have no intention of working in this field. It's because they were not raised on or near farming operations; that is the main determinant, because modern agribusiness has its own culture-specific view of those animals that's completely disparate from that in companion animal medicine. 
In small animal medicine, most patients are regarded as non-verbal family members; it's a stone's throw from human pediatrics. In large animal medicine, on the other hand, the animals are viewed mainly (if not entirely) as production units, meat, or soon-to-be pieces of meat. In general, the purpose of  large animal medicine isn't to interact with and enjoy animals; it's to ensure the most cost-effective, herd-preserving course of action that creates maximum animal productivity and economic gain.
And in this age of factory farming, concern for and interaction with individual animals is less than ever - it's rarely like this any more. So if Farmer John and Bessie the cow are being replaced with "giant agribusiness operation" and "heifer #706", can we really expect the James Herriot-appeal of large animal medicine to persist? 

It's silly to paint a picture in the media or elsewhere that large animal medicine is just like small animal medicine, except that the animals are larger. For the most part, small animal veterinarian "types" do not just become large animal veterinarian "types"; the cultural and value backgrounds are so incongruous, it's like expecting a Democrat to transform into a Republican or vice versa just because both are politicians.
Seeing this Post article made me flash back to a time not long ago when I was a vet student writing articles for the Student AVMA journal Vet Gazette. Of the 3 animal protection articles I submitted, only the one regarding farm animals was not published. I bring this up because I wrote it in response to this Vet Gazette "student forum" question:

"The need for food animal veterinarians has become an important topic within our profession and our nation. Why do you think graduating veterinarians are moving away from this field and how can this issue be addressed? What would convince you to become a food animal veterinarian if you were inclined towards a different field?"

Here are some excerpts from my response, just dug up from the dark, crowded depths of My Documents and re-read by me for the first time since its submission years ago. (My middle school English teacher would have yardstick slapped me for using that passive voice.) I've taken the liberty of inserting an "OUCH!" after each statement. Reading them now, I still stand by all of these statements, even if some seemed very direct.

Value conflicts between the worlds of food animal and small animal medicine are ever- increasing. As small animal medicine continues to move forward almost equally with the advances of human medicine and medical technology, large animal practice is appearing less like medicine and more like a specialized form of animal production consulting. (OUCH!)

I have also observed time and time again a tendency (of large animal veterinarians and producers) to attack evolving values of society if they interfere with economic gain. This habit is not helping the image of the food animal world. The more agribusiness moves toward ‘factory farming’, the less veterinary students will show interest in working with these animals. Interaction with animals, a huge part of the profession’s appeal, is severely  restricted by the nature of modern agribusiness and its confinement practices. (OUCH!)

In a typical swine confinement facility, the environment usually reeks of urine, and sows packed into gestation stalls are unable to turn around or even move much at all. They remain that way for months on end with no relief... these animals are often orthopedic nightmares and display stereotypical behaviors caused directly by the production environment. While few veterinary students are actively promoting animal welfare reforms to change these production methods, even fewer students are considering switching careers to swine medicine. Unfortunately, its practices can be repulsive to compassionate, animal-loving people who have not been conditioned from an early age to accept them. (OUCH!)

Making an effort to recruit more students with food animal interest and offering financial assistance may bring more food animal veterinarians into the profession. However, it will not change the larger problem, which is that veterinary medicine has the very real potential to become a house divided against itself. (OUCH!)

I knew that the SAVMA Vet Gazette did not want to hear about the larger issue, and that my view would not be published. But look at this, ladies and has been published elsewhere.

Until next time... here is some interesting advice.

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