CONNELL, Wash. - Bill Bennett has spent 45 years feeding and herding the 2,500 cattle that roam his rolling eastern Washington ranch. Unable to find a veterinarian to come to his rural place, Bennett's job has come to include doctor as well.
Farmers and ranchers across the country complain of a shortage of large animal veterinarians. A federal program created in 2003 to try to help the situation sits dormant while the U.S. Department of Agriculture writes rules, and food safety experts cry out that public health is being endangered.
Veterinarians not only care for cattle, pigs, horses and chickens on the farm, they also monitor and inspect a large portion of the food supply and work as disease researchers. And a shortage has many experts calling the situation a crisis in animal care.
More and more states are recognizing the critical need, approving or considering bills that provide tuition reimbursement or scholarships to veterinarians who agree to work in underserved areas. Those states include Washington, where Bennett has been championing rural veterinary care for years.
"I can't get a vet to save my life. I've tried for years to get one to move in here and start a practice and they don't want to do it. They want to do bigger cities and small animals," Bennett said. "I complain about them spending all our money educating dog and cat doctors."
Recent studies for the American Veterinary Medical Association indicate that the demand for veterinarians nationally will increase by as much as 14 percent by 2016. Those same studies project a shortfall of vets of between 4 to 5 percent annually.