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The veterinarian shortage is serious in WV. Agricultural leaders hope a new program can help.

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The veterinarian shortage is serious in WV. Agricultural leaders hope a new program can help.

Nov 27, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Caity Coyne
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The veterinarian shortage is serious in WV. Agricultural leaders hope a new program can help.
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West Virginia has a shortage of veterinarians. In agricultural communities, where there are a dearth of service providers and a lot of unmet needs, farmers are forced to make difficult choices. (Adam Glanzman | Bloomberg)

An ongoing shortage of veterinarians and their support staff in West Virginia is complicating care for both domestic and farm animals across the state, but agricultural and animal science experts are hopeful that a new, first-of-its-kind program can help fill the gap.

With support from the state Department of Agriculture and through a partnership between West Virginia State University and West Virginia University’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, the state is preparing to launch its first four-year veterinary technology program. But first, it needs to secure the funding.

Joe Hatton, deputy commissioner for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, said the agency will ask the Legislature in its upcoming session — which starts in January — to appropriate $3 million for the endeavor. That’s a drop in the bucket of the more-than $320 million researchers say would be needed to start a full-fledged veterinary school in the state, but it’s a more feasible first step, Hatton said.

The program will allow enrolled students to earn a four-year veterinary technology degree, which is different from the two-year veterinary technician degrees currently offered by three accredited programs in the state.

“With the two-year programs, you get an associates degree. With the four-year, we’re adding another layer. In human medicine, the equivalent would be a physician’s assistant or a nurse practitioner — a midlevel provider, the person you actually often see when you go to your doctor,” said Matt Wilson, a professor at WVU’s Davis College. “A big part of this is preparing us, and our students, for the future.”

While the veterinary technologists won’t have the same training or accreditations as veterinarians, having more of them will allow for better services in regions with vet shortages and expand what providers can offer.

There are several counties in West Virginia without a single veterinarian, Hatton said. When it comes to domesticated animals, like dogs and cats, this can be a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

“There still isn’t enough veterinary care for those small animals in the state, but luckily they’re more mobile,” Hatton said. “If something happens, you can transport them to another county, even another state if that’s closer.”

The more difficult challenge comes with large farm animals. In agricultural communities, where there are a dearth of service providers and a lot of unmet needs, farmers are forced to make difficult choices.

“Many of our small farmers — and that’s a majority of our farmers — just cannot afford to call a vet up to service their livestock, especially food animal livestock,” Hatton said. “It would cost more to get a veterinarian than what the calf or lamb may be worth at sale time, and that is a real economic hardship … the loss of even a small number of animals, of certain animals, can be the difference between profits and loss for a farm.”

In response, many small farmers have learned to adapt, picking up skill sets to help their flocks and herds as much as they can, but still not on the same level of trained veterinarians, Hatton said. If there is a complication — for example if an ewe dies while in labor with twins or triplets and an expert was needed to remove them — one loss can be huge for a small flock, Hatton said. 

In 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were about 22,500 farms in West Virginia. A majority of those are small farms, Hatton said, with about 12-15 animals in a herd or flock depending on the farm type.

There are about 700 veterinarians in the state, Hatton said, but fewer than half of those people are currently licensed and practicing.

“There is a huge need here,” Wilson said. “We have in practice right now about one technician for every three veterinarians, and we should have about four technicians for every one veterinarian. That is a huge difference.”

With a four-year program, accredited veterinary technologists will be able to serve as “the first set of eyes and hands” for an animal’s exam, reporting under a licensed veterinarian.

“They can go and say whether this is a routine issue or whether there is more that needs to be done, whether a veterinarian needs to step in,” Hatton said. “We have got to extend the eyes and arms of the veterinarians that we have, and this will be a step toward doing that.”

The public health perspective

The need — and the consequences — that come with a veterinary care shortage extends past ensuring farms are profitable and animals are well-cared for. There is a large public health component that needs to be addressed, as well. 

Veterinarians, technicians and technologists are crucial in both food safety and disease surveillance, Wilson said. 

“We hear it all the time, even from the White House: Food security is national security. The frontline of a large part of our food safety program nationwide, whether on the state level or from the USDA, is the veterinary field,” Wilson said. “Everybody goes to the grocery store and assumes there’s going to be plentiful, safe food, but what makes that happen is a huge effort on the backend. Animal health and sciences are critical in that.”

When there aren’t enough veterinarians to treat animals, there also aren’t enough on the ground looking for signs of disease and illness that, in some cases, can transmit to humans — like what happened with the bird and swine flu epidemics.

“Disease surveillance for livestock is the same as it is for humans. If we don’t have trained veterinarians looking at these animals, tracking contagious diseases they may have that could transfer to other animals, other farms and end up in our food supplies, that’s not safe,” Hatton said. “Not having those eyes is a huge risk given the economy we live in, where we’re one bad activity away from a catastrophic event.”

The importance of being career ready

With West Virginia’s lack of a veterinary school, those in the state who wish to work as veterinarians must attend school out of state. West Virginia has an agreement with a handful of schools in other states, where a certain number of students — 13 to be exact — are selected to attend veterinary school with their tuition partially subsidized by the state.

Agricultural leaders want to see the number of those subsidized admittances doubled, to 26, Hatton said. Even then, however, there is still a long way to go before the need for veterinarians and their support staff is met in the state.

Wilson said the four-year veterinary technology program will allow students who want to work in the field to have a leg up when applying to competitive, out-of-state programs. And with a state law that allows students to study at the two-year veterinary technician programs for free or at reduced costs, the opportunity to study animal sciences will expand in West Virginia.

Hatton said students at the two-year programs will be able to transfer to the four-year program, where they will finish out the classes they need to become technologists instead of technicians. If they want, he continued, they can then attend a veterinary school with less debt. Either way, the graduates will come away more “career ready,” Wilson said.

“It’s easier to keep people in the state, to have them serve here, if there are jobs for the individuals and they graduate career-ready,” Wilson said. “That’s what we want here, and that’s why we’re really relying to make this a hands-on, practical program and approach to accomplish that.”

There’s high turnover in the veterinary field — from veterinarians down to their support staff, Wilson said. The profession can be heavy on “compassion fatigue” and with a shortage of veterinarians, this becomes even more severe. Veterinarians face one of the highest suicide rates of any profession, and the failure rate for businesses, Hatton said, is also one of the highest.

“A big part of that is the financial stress they are under to pay back that college debt they have. Doing that in a timely fashion is a real challenge,” Hatton said. “It’s important for us to go and figure out ways and offer ways to reduce the college debt they’re facing upon graduation and hopefully that makes for a more successful field.”