A Looming Crisis in the Equine Industry

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BY Sophie Hauptman

As an equestrian and animal lover, it would be easy to think becoming an equine veterinarian is the perfect way to combine passion and career. However, given the size of our industry and impacts it has had on many lives, the United States is nevertheless facing an alarming shortage of equine veterinarians. Failure to address or resolve this in the coming years is already having severe ramifications for not only equine patients, but also current practicing equine veterinarians.

The cause of this crisis is sad, but simple: We need more people who want to become equine veterinarians. Even after investing in vet school, other careers can lure aspiring young vets out of the industry. Three equine veterinarians from the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, who are all experiencing and seeing the complications this imminent crisis has been inflicting on the equine industry offered their insights into why the varying causes of this predicament are rooted in the reluctance to pursue veterinary science, and what possible and realistic solutions should be strived for.

One topic that was continuously addressed, related to the quality of life equine veterinarians have, and how changes need to be made from a deeper, more systemic place in the industry in order to help improve the situation.

“Equine vets start off having less salary and longer hours compared to small animal vets who work more regular hours and have average starting salaries of roughly $90,000”, said Dr. Julie Dechant, an equine surgeon at UC Davis who specializes in veterinary emergency and critical care. “We need to change how these positions are advertised, how clinics and practices are organized, and that there is more of a shift to sharing emergency, night, and weekend duties”, she emphasized.

Working conditions then directly affect decisions regarding where and why to practice in certain parts of the country, which has caused a problematic maldistribution of veterinarians. There is a dilemma of vets wanting to do their jobs, while simultaneously trying to uphold a decent standard of living. Unfortunately, this means basing themselves in areas with high concentrations of shows and show barns.

“Vets concentrate in Wellington for example, because there’s a high demand for high level care. There’s a shift to more expensive, specialty kinds of care that allows vets to make a good living”, mentioned Dr. Sarah le Jeune, an equine surgeon at UC Davis, who specializes in Equine Integrative Sports Medicine. She perceives this to be problematic, because there is now a shortage of general practitioners who can give their patients more routine, affordable care.

However, no matter where you’re practicing in the country or how much money you’re making, there is a distinct imbalance of respect and privacy when it comes to equine vet to client relationships. Dr. Carrie Finno, equine internal medicine specialist and director of the UC Davis Center for Equine Health, made an interesting distinction to small animal veterinary medicine, by asking, “How many people do you know have their small animal vet’s personal phone number in their contacts?”

Most equine patients, contrarily, have a direct line of communication to their vets to call them at any hour in the day. “Equine vets may not have clients that respect their boundaries. Sometimes, equine vets feel as though they are the horse’s only chance of vet care, even when they are officially off duty. Therefore, the equine vet’s quality of life goes down. Yet, when they establish boundaries, they may get push back from their clients.” continued Dr. Finno. Small animal vets on the other hand, work regular hours and have their clients drive to special emergency clinics to receive off hour medical care.

While adopting this model to the equine industry was considered a possible solution, it wouldn’t be feasible due to financial and transportational reasons, and patient sizes. However, there are other potential ways to remedy the issue at hand. Firstly, more people need to be drawn to the profession, and this doesn’t necessarily only apply to horse people. Dr. Dechant, in fact, said, “We need to break the myth that you need to be a horse person in order to be an equine vet.” The American Horse Council is taking measures as well, by lobbying Congress to grant federal loan forgiveness to equine vets who agree to move to areas that lack veterinarians.

As for practicing veterinarians, Drs. Finno and le Jeune commented on how important it is to preserve one’s mental health to maintain professional stability. “There needs to be a way for universities or other veterinarians to check in on their students who graduate from vet school. This way, they can be offered the mental and emotional support they need to help them stay in equine practice”, mentioned Dr. Finno. One current example of mental support she has seen, is the creation of vet-to-vet Facebook groups, providing a free space for veterinarians to express their feelings. When vets have access to these platforms and spaces, Dr. le Jeune emphasized how important it is to “ask for help and be comfortable with a little bit of vulnerability”. 

Dr. Dechant talked about how privileged she feels to be able to work with horses, and how it is “hard, but so rewarding to take such a massive creature and make it better”. Dr. le Jeune said she has had the “horse bug” since she was a kid, which became a “passion and obsession that turned into an everyday job”. 

The mutual admiration, respect and care equestrians and veterinarians share for horses should be convincing enough to show how important it is to maintain the health and well-being of our horses, and the individuals who work endlessly to look after them. It is vital that more awareness be brought to the issue, inside and outside of the equestrian world, to garner more support and solutions that can make veterinary medicine more sustainable and accessible.