Rural Life Offers Plenty for Veterinarians The Buzz


Many animal lovers have romantic ideas about working as a rural veterinarian. After all, working with animals in the countryside sounds pretty idyllic.

That was certainly the case for Dr. Rexanne Struve. "Being able to work and raise our family on and around the family farm in Iowa has been my dream since childhood,” she says. “I had a very romanticized idea of what it would be like to live on a farm. When I was 16, I visited a dairy farm in Southern Illinois. It was the first time I’d ever seen a cow, and I was hooked. I knew I wanted to work with cattle.”

Struve’s practice is located in a small town and treats all species of animals. This includes all types of livestock, like cattle, sheep, hogs, horses, deer, elk and llamas. Small companion animals such as dogs, cats, birds, ferrets, reptiles, mice, hamsters and rats also make their way into her practice.

“We may not be experts in all, but we can be the front line of determining a problem and we refer cases to specialists when needed,” she explains.

But there is another side to working as a rural vet, one filled with long nights, dirty work and demanding clients. The current shortage of rural and large animal veterinarians suggests these more negative aspects of life as a rural vet may be discouraging some veterinarians from working in rural areas.

There are other reasons for the shortage, including some that might not be so obvious.

“The majority of large animal veterinarians are people who grew up in the country,” explains Dr. Geneva Pagliai. “With the shrinking population in rural areas, the population of potential large animal veterinarians is shrinking as well. In addition, veterinary medicine is becoming dominated by women who are less likely to want to be in large animal practice, perhaps because it is more physically demanding than small animal practice.”

Struve agrees that the demand for rural and large animal vets is growing. She adds another reason to explain the shortage.

“There is a high demand for rural and large animal vets now because for the last 20 years, veterinary colleges have not chosen to admit students with more rural backgrounds who are more likely to go into rural practices,” she explains.

“Admission to veterinary school has been too much oriented to grades alone. Young people who have not grown up on farms and ranches may have more emphasis placed on getting the highest grades. While that is good to a point, many times it has come at the expense of the practical experience the rural kids have. They have education in things other than book knowledge, which tends to be what grades reflect.”

Struve explains that people who haven’t grown up around livestock are not as likely to want to go into rural practice. They may be afraid that they can’t learn about livestock, or can’t handle them.

It makes sense that the veterinarians who care for large animals would have experience with them and be located near them. Unfortunately, that also means that there is a smaller population to draw from. Add that to the long years of schooling, the expenses attached to that education, and factors such as unpredictable hours and uncomfortable conditions, and you begin to see why this career may be overlooked. Still, those who choose this path overcome the challenges and enjoy the rewards.

“Rural practice is taxing during the heavy times of the year, spring and fall, if cattle and sheep are part of the practice mix,” confirms Struve. “But there isn’t a job on earth that doesn’t have its trying times, and the friendships formed over calving, lambing, and farrowing difficulties are deeply ingrained and hard to beat.”

“I enjoy being outside and interacting with my clients, both the animals and their owners/trainers,” says Pagliai. “Of course, seeing new cases every day is challenging and the long hours and being on call for your clients can be difficult.” But Struve believes that any veterinary student who loves the rural lifestyle should consider going into rural practice.

“There are more opportunities now for employment in rural areas than ever before,” she says. “Salaries of veterinarians are the highest they’ve ever been. Being a part of the community is also a big plus. In rural towns, the veterinarian is looked up to as a model and a sort of hero. The community is an extension of family, and veterinarians play a very important part in the makeup of the town.”

Pagliai suggests that students consider this career if they enjoy problem solving, being outside, job security and interacting with both animals and people. “It can be very rewarding to help see an animal through an illness, but it is important to realize how much time is spent interacting with the owners of animals and doing client education.”

“Rural communities are the best place on earth to raise families, and farmers are the salt of the earth,” concludes Struve. “I wouldn’t change places with anybody.”

Links

American Veterinary Medical Association
Contains information for vets as well as resources for the public

About.com: Veterinary Medicine
Contains links to veterinary schools across North America

Academy of Rural Veterinarians
Organization specifically for rural vets