Commentary: 3 reasons millennials are leaving equine practice

Commentary: 3 reasons millennials are leaving equine practice

These younger veterinarians are tired of the low pay, lack of balance and—last but certainly not least—demands to compromise their ethics.
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Dec 07, 2015

I’ve seen it time and time again: friends and acquaintances leaving their large animal practices and heading over to small animal medicine. I was warned that equine practice would be difficult, but the lack of specifics about these difficulties during my preveterinary and veterinary education led me to swear I wouldn’t be one of the ones to switch careers.

That’s the problem, though, isn’t it? I was told that being accepted to veterinary school would be difficult, but I did it. I was told that staying in veterinary school would be difficult, but I did that too. I was told that it would be difficult to score an internship, but I managed to snag a great internship at one of the oldest, most well-known equine practices in the country. I was told that practicing equine medicine would be difficult, and by this point it was habit to disregard the warnings.

So, as I mulled over the idea of leaving equine practice, I began to ask myself and my colleagues some questions. And as it turns out, we all left for similar reasons—not one of which was that practicing equine medicine was “difficult.” Practicing equine medicine is truly no more difficult than practicing small animal medicine. Sure, you have some naughty animals just like in small animal practices, and they can potentially injure you more seriously (although my companion animal colleagues may disagree). The medicine part of the equation, however, is still no more or less difficult in equine practice than in small animal practice, in my opinion.

What is difficult about equine practice, according to this cohort of millennials, can mostly be summed up in these three issues:

1. Low base salaries compared to small animal practitioners

OK, this is nothing new, but it is still a serious concern. Most of the offers I received upon completion of my internship were in the ballpark of $60,000, with minimal benefits. I had one offer as low as $40,000, and I believe the highest was $65,000. This is appalling compared to a small animal practitioner, most of whose starting salaries are around $75,000 to $80,000 without an internship and with significant benefits.

Not only are starting salaries low for equine veterinary professionals, they stay low for a long time. Most equine professionals don’t hit that $80,000 mark until they have been practicing for five or even 10 years, by which point their student loans seem like a mountain of insurmountable proportions.

2. Work-life balance challenges

Again, nothing new here. In my two-doctor equine practice I worked Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to whenever we were finished. I was on call 50 percent of the time with only every other Sunday off, which meant I might go days at a time with little to no sleep and absolutely no personal time or time with family. I averaged a 60-hour workweek when I wasn’t busy, not including driving time to and from my first and last calls, anywhere from a one- to two-hour commute in rush hour traffic. In contrast, most small animal practitioners work four days a week with no on-call duties. My husband works three days a week at a busy emergency practice, averaging a mere 14 days a month, or 36 hours a week.

3. The ethical dilemma

Now, before I get people in an uproar, I would like to point out that every colleague I spoke with mentioned ethics as one of the critical reasons they left equine practice. I’m not saying it happens in every equine practice, nor am I saying that it doesn’t happen in small animal practices. I would just like to point out that every millennial colleague of mine who has left equine practice cited this as a reason for leaving, making it a pervasive problem within our industry.

All of us, at one time or another, were encouraged by our practice owners or mentors to do something ethically or morally questionable to a patient. In most cases the horse’s owner was asking for a treatment that is not strictly ethical (i.e. deadening a tail, “quieting” a show horse, administering performance-enhancing drugs), and our baby boomer or Generation X employers were either strongly encouraging or demanding compliance.

Now, I don’t know if this disparity is due to the fact that current medicine has advanced beyond these reprehensible practices, or simply due to a relaxing of moral and ethical standards over the course of years of practice in an attempt satisfy a larger number of clients. My guess is a combination of both. But from what I’ve seen, the millennial generation will not tolerate shaky ethics.

If ambulatory equine practices are going to survive, some major advances need to be made to bring equine practice into the 21st century. Our small animal colleagues have done a great job of revolutionizing veterinary practice and improving the overall quality of life for companion animal veterinarians, and I look forward to seeing similar improvements in the equine sector as well.

Dr. Kathryn Kraft is an equine veterinarian specializing in sport horses, acupuncture and competition medicine in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.