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In the trenches

Studies might reveal trends, but personal experience is the most eye-opening insight to rural vet shortage
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Jun 01, 2010

NATIONAL REPORT — Is a female majority in veterinary medicine exacerbating the shortage of rural, large-animal veterinarians? Or is it just a sign of the times?

Rural areas are clamoring for veterinarians, prompting universities and governments to find new ways to attract new blood to large-animal medicine. At the same time, family farms are disappearing. But whether the increase of women in veterinary practice, the changing attitudes of a new generation or a changing rural landscape play a greater a role in the decline of rural veterinarians is an answer even those on the front lines have a hard time agreeing on.

"They keep blaming that because there are more women, there are less veterinarians in rural areas, and that's not true," says Dr. LuAnn Dorman, who started her small-animal clinic in Pratt, Kan., after more than a decade in large-animal medicine. "I think there's just a decline in the rural areas. The trend is changing that if you have to farm, you have to farm big. There are less family farms, and I think that's a lot of it. The kids going to veterinary school nowadays are coming from more urban areas."

Some rural areas have open-minded populations, but there are many more that make it difficult for women to practice in large-animal medicine, Dorman says.

"There were some pretty good guys up there who didn't have problems with it, but there were a lot who thought women just couldn't do the job," she says. "If you proved your ability, they might come around. To others, it wasn't a woman's place. There were some who got in my face and said women belonged barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, and there were some who said they would rather have their cow die than have a woman (veterinarian)."

Not all female, large-animal veterinarians share Dorman's experiences but might agree that the rural landscape is changing, and it takes a special kind of person to be a large-animal vet.

"You took every call that came, and it was all hours of the day or night. Part of me loved it, and part of it was extremely difficult. It's physically very draining, which I actually liked, but I think some people — men and women — don't like that," says Dr. Donna Stafford, whose 30-year veterinary career began with a decade of solo practice primarily on Indiana swine farms. She now works at a mixed-animal practice in Litchfield, Ohio. "It's emotionally draining because of the hours, but I really miss it a lot at times."

Forewarned being a solo, large-animal practitioner would be difficult, Stafford says she actually had fewer problems with rural farmers than she does now with suburban transplants that care for the occasional goat.

"I liked having rapport with farmers. Everyone said I would have trouble because of the area, but I didn't because you just go out, you do it and you prove yourself," Stafford says. "If you act like Miss Priss and you're not dressed appropriately, you might have a problem. But if you just go out, and you do your job, it's no problem. People give the farmers a really bad name that they're not used to women doing this, but look at the farmer's wife. They do stuff more than men in the city do."

Where Stafford practices now, most family farms are being sold and backyard livestock make up the bulk of her large-animal patients. Over the last decade, her large-animal clients have dropped from about 50 percent of the clinic's business to about 10 percent.

"I miss the true farmer day-to-day, where this is their livelihood versus the hobby farmer," Stafford says. "More and more people are selling out. As the farms go out, they lose their services. There aren't nearly as many farm stores and services."