The veterinary profession is losing its presence in food animal production and care. That’s one of five conclusions that a committee empanelled in 2007 to assess the current and future workforce needs in veterinary medicine reached as it investigated the changing dynamics of the veterinary profession.

According to the report, the American Veterinary Medical Association reported that 531 graduates of the class of 1989 entered food animal practice. In 2009, that number was 209 – a 62% drop. The decline was attributed to the economy and a decrease in the availability of jobs in food animal practice.

“There is great pressure to increase the number of graduates going into food animal practice,” the report says, “but the profession may first need to consider the nature of the opportunities that are available and the education needed by food animal veterinarians.”

According to Alan Kelly, committee chair and University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine professor emeritus, food animal veterinary medicine is shifting to mixed animal practices. That can have consequences, he says, not the least of which is less understanding of the complexities of food animal health and public health. “For the profession, this is an unacceptable risk,” he says.

Using figures that show a decline in membership in organizations like the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, Kelly says, “This raises the question of whether mixed food animal clinicians are able to keep abreast of the technical advances and needs of a consolidated livestock industry.”

Kelly says that, as the size of livestock operations increases, producers are shifting more animal health care to lay practitioners who have become familiar with routine animal healthcare needs. “However, this system carries the danger that uncommon symptoms of disease may be missed, leading to delays in reporting (a disease outbreak) and initiation of control measures. This can have national repercussions,” he says.

To make food animal veterinary care relevant and useful to producers, the committee recommends that the education of food animal practitioners should be reoriented toward production medicine, herd health and welfare, and interventions aimed at improving the financial health of the farming operation.

“Veterinary schools and colleges should work together to achieve this goal by creating a portfolio of online courses in all aspects of food animal veterinary medicine,” Kelly says. “No one school can accomplish this alone. By forming centers of emphasis in food animal veterinary medicine, these initiatives should prepare graduates to fully and successfully serve the dynamic and changing food animal industries in the country and beyond.”

In addition, the committee recommends that the veterinary profession formulate new ways of delivering cost-effective services to rural Americans using veterinary technicians to extend animal health services and increased health surveillance in remote areas, much like nurse practitioners in human medicine. That approach, given digital technology, is increasingly feasible, Kelly says.

To read the report, click here.