Livestock vet shortage has large animal doctors hoofing it statewide

Vermont has a lot of large farm animals, and that makes for a tall task for veterinarians who specialize in how to care for them.
Published: Jan. 3, 2023 at 5:25 AM EST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ST. ALBANS, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont has a lot of large farm animals, and that makes for a tall task for veterinarians who specialize in how to care for them. State leaders say recruiting and retaining livestock vets is an ongoing challenge depending on the time and place.

Dr. Erica Sebastyan’s primary patients are cows. The vet works for Northwest Veterinary Associates and says they’ve recently begun caring for three or four new herds from areas where a vet couldn’t cover them anymore, as some Northeast practices stop taking calls.

“We’ve been working around trying to have days where we’re out that direction more so that someone can cover those calls. Unfortunately, if they have emergencies, we can’t really go out for that because if someone closer here needs to call, we can’t be two hours away and then have to try to get back here for something,” Sebastyan said.

The career can come with challenges: physical labor, odd emergency hours, and expensive education that leaves many in debt. “There’s not a lot of relief coverage. That’s something that we definitely struggle with. So you learn a lot real fast,” Sebastyan said.

But there are programs to help ease the financial burden. Vermont State Veterinarian Dr. Kristen Haas says a state-funded loan repayment plan has assisted 13 vets since 2011, including Sebastyan. “We hope to have, and hope to be able to contribute to the next generation of veterinarians coming into the area, and also with food-animal veterinary practices,” Haas said.

On top of federal and state aid for the financial burden, co-owner of the Vermont Large Animal Clinic in Milton, Dr. Betsy Colarusso, said work hours are shifting at their equine clinic to keep vets. “Open-minded about scheduling and part-time relief work. Just thinking outside the box making sure that people know that they don’t have to work from six to nine every day or on call every day,” Colarusso said.

Haas admits it’s not easy to start a practice here. With some vets moving to rural areas with no connections, it can sometimes feel isolating as a new professional. “It’s very important and helpful for new graduate veterinarians, for instance, to have a structure, have a support group, have colleagues that they can bounce ideas off them and learn from. So it’s much harder for a new graduate to come into a new area and then proverbial ‘hang a shingle’ and start a practice,” Haas said.

Despite the barriers to the profession, these professionals say it’s a labor of love. “When you love it, you love it, and never goes away,” Colarusso said.

To ease more of the financial pressure there are federal repayment programs available, but not every vet who applies will receive funding.