A wave of potential retirements among federal veterinarians could be a blessing for vet students.
A recent report from the Government Accountability Office indicates that the number of federal veterinarians is quickly dwindling.
Federal veterinarians are essential to the food production and safety of the United States. They maintain control of diseases that can spread between animals and humans, according to the report.
The report also noted that while there is no government-wide effort to search for shared solutions to this problem, 16 of the 24 federal entities that employ veterinarians raised concerns about the sufficiency of the workforce.
One large factor contributing to this shortage is the fact that 27 percent of the veterinarians at five main federal agencies will be eligible to retire within three years, according to GAO research.
It is necessary to have a sufficient number of veterinarians devoted to inspecting animals to ensure diseases do not cross into U.S. territory, said Larry Hawkins, spokesperson for the United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service division.
One of the most important areas where veterinarians are employed is in the Veterinary Service Division, which deals with exotic animal diseases such as avian influenza and equine anemia, he said.
“When animals are imported to the United States they must be examined and possibly quarantined,” Hawkins said. “In that case they must be examined by a federal veterinarian.”
Another key division that requires federal veterinarians is the animal care division, which ensures that animals are treated properly, he said.
In this division, veterinarians travel to and examine any locations where animals are exhibited, such as the circus, and make sure animals are being treated fairly and humanely, Hawkins added.
The USDA and APHIS, like many other organizations, are feeling the effects of this nationwide veterinary shortage, he said.
“There seem to be fewer and fewer veterinarians in their vet school training who are working with large animals,” Hawkins said. “This shortage could have serious implications for the U.S. food supply.”
The highly regarded UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine is also noticing the trend of students choosing not to go into the federal veterinary field.
“We’ve known for some time that there are not nearly enough veterinarians available for public service,” said Bennie Osburn, dean of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “Now the federal government is really taking stock of things and seeing that there really is more need for veterinarians.”
Faculty and staff at the vet school are aware of the country’s problem and the shortages they are facing, Osburn said.
Part of the shortage is due to the fact that a sizeable portion of veterinary jobs are located on the East Coast, and about 80 percent of the veterinarians that graduate from the UC Davis veterinary program remain in California, he said.
Also, a high percentage of the UC Davis veterinarians go into companion animal practice, which mostly consists of caring for cats and dogs, Osburn added. Fewer students are going into large animal veterinary medicine.
“Not too many head [into the field of large animals], but we think it’s important to try to train more students [in that field] so they can help meet national needs,” Osburn said.
Some of the main responsibilities of federal veterinarians are to maintain federal health and food safety, he added.
“[Federal veterinarians] play a very important role in protecting the country from potential new and emerging zoonotic diseases,” he said. “They also address outbreaks of disease and try to control them.“
The GAO is currently working with Senator Akaka from Hawaii to find a solution to this shortage, said Lisa Shanes, GAO staff member and co-writer of the report.
“The report was requested by and released to Senator Akaka from Hawaii,” Shanes said.
The GAO identified the shortage problem, and then began to develop the report on the vet shortage, she added. In the report, the GAO makes several recommendations on how to combat the problem.
There will be a hearing today between the GAO and several other organizations who employ federal veterinarians to determine the next course of action.
For the full report, visit gao.gov/new.items/d09178.pdf.
CAITLIN COBB can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.