Healthy moos in the hands of veterinarians
Veterinarians fill one of the most important positions at any county or state fair, in a role that helps keep both the animals and people safe and happy.
According to Lara Hughes, marketing and communications supervisor for the Minnesota State Fair, there are between 12,000 and 16,000 animals in St. Paul for the state fair each year.
Overseeing them are 10 vets. One official veterinarian is the supervisor for five other regulatory vets, along with practicing veterinarians who rotate shifts of being on-call. There’s guaranteed to be at least one vet on duty at the fair at all times.
That doesn’t include the vets working in the state fair’s Birth Center, where Hughes said last year were nearly 200 calves, lambs and piglets during the 12 days. Vets are always staffed there to perform deliveries and deal with complications.
For county fairs, there’s usually just one veterinarian watching over the health of all the animals.
Dr. Anna Wildgrube, a veterinarian and owner of the Heartland Animal Hospital in Owatonna, has worked at the Steele County Fair for the last four years. She said the state has a list of requirements for animals to be allowed to at the fair.
"Each day I walk through the entire set of animal exhibits to make sure all the animals are healthy, and find any problems that arise," Wildgrube said. "Because any time you have that many animals in one location, some things are bound to happen — whether it’s an animal that gets too hot, or one that decides not to eat, or occasionally an injury."
Vets are on the lookout for signs of diseases that can be transmitted from animal to animal, or from animal to human. Any animal that appears to be ill gets her immediate attention.
"Animal health is the number one thing," said Wildgrube.
Shortage in veterinary care
Wildgrube completed her undergrad in biology at Gustavus Adolphus and received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Minnesota.
Since Wildgrube does both small and large animal work, on days she’s not working the six-day county fair, she’s split between the clinic and in the field. Her average day starts about 8 a.m., with surgical procedures taking up most of her mornings and then field appointments in the afternoon. She most commonly works with horses, sheep and goats.
Heartland Animal Hospital has two locations, one in Owatonna and another in Faribault, and there are four vets between the two locations. Wilgrube said there are parts of the state that are underserved for veterinarians, but fortunately for southeast Minnesota that isn’t the case.
"But I have colleagues that work in areas where they are the only veterinarian for 100 miles," Wildgrube said.
According to Bill Hoffman, chief of staff for the USDA and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), there were 187 veterinarian shortage areas in 41 states identified by the agency. There are other shortage areas that state and federal health officials are determined to address as well.
As to why there’s a shortage, Wildgrube said it could be the lifestyle that veterinarian life brings.
"Because animals don’t get sick just from 8 to 5," she said. "It’s very common to get called out in the middle of the night, and to miss family events because of sick animals."
Another reason is the pay, which usually isn’t enough in rural areas to cover the cost of a veterinary degree in a reasonable timeframe.
Rural veterinarians earn between $61,470 and $73,540 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is about half of what they might earn in a metro area.
"People think veterinarians are extremely well-paid like doctors or dentists," Wildgrube said. "And the truth is, we’re not."
The working conditions can also be a turnoff to people, said Wildgrube, who said she’s used to working in snow, sleet, rain and every temperature of weather. She also said there’s a danger aspect, because large animals can hurt you, even if you’re doing everything right.
In 2003, Congress enacted the National Veterinary Medical Service Act, which launched the USDA’s Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program. The program offers educational loan repayment agreements to veterinarians who agree to provide veterinary services in veterinarian shortage situations for a determined period of time.
Veterinarians commit to at least three years to providing veterinary services in a designated shortage area, and NIFA may repay up to $25,000 of eligible student loan debt per year. The program has awarded funding to 415 applicants since 2010, valuing a total of $39,335,423.
Hoffman said while the maldistribution of veterinarians is certainly an issue of concern in the veterinary profession, the solution may be as simple as spreading the care where it needs to be.
"The Market for Veterinarians noted that in 2016, while the number of job opportunities for veterinarians was greater than the number of applicants, in some locations there were more than 10 applicants per job opening and in other areas employers could find no one to apply for open positions," said Hoffman. "This data would seem to indicate that in some places we have too many veterinarians and in other places we have too few — but what does that mean in terms of food animal vs companion animal practitioners? That data is harder to find."