The Impending Equine Health Care Crisis – The Horse

A crisis is brewing for your horse. This growing threat has been mostly silent, but it is now raising alarm in many parts of the United States. All indicators show that the situation is getting worse, with the potential to affect all horses. What is this existential threat? The rapidly declining supply of equine veterinarians.

Right now, many veterinary practices have too few professionals to care for their clients, leaving horses in need of medical attention and equine veterinarians overwhelmed. Many of you have already been affected, either by waiting longer for an appointment or not having access to services after hours.

In 2021, the American Veterinary Medical Association reported that of 3,311 U.S. veterinary school graduates, 46 (1.4%) entered equine private practice upon graduation and another 97 (2.9%) entered internships equines. The survey revealed that within five years, 50% of these young veterinarians leave the field. That’s not a typo; 50% actually leave equine veterinary medicine after five years to practice small animals or leave veterinary medicine altogether.

Driving this exodus are the personal demands and lower starting salaries of the equine practice. In 2022, the reported median starting salary for small animal doctors was $110,000, plus a four-day workweek and no emergency service. A new equine intern reportedly earns a third to a half less, for a longer work week with on-call hours. Many recent graduates have over $200,000 in student loan debt, making a low-paying job often unthinkable, no matter how much they want to become a horse doctor.

Emergency coverage is another incredibly challenging aspect of equine practice. Unlike in small animal medicine, few emergency clinics exist. It is the responsibility of each equine veterinarian to ensure emergency care for clients. For many practitioners, their job is 24/7. This affects the mental and physical health of the vet and his family. Many choose to leave work for a healthier lifestyle.

The solution is complex and will require a collaborative effort unprecedented in equine circles. The American Association of Equine Practitioners is working within the profession to transform compensation, emergency coverage, and the culture of the practice.

What can you do as a horse owner?

  1. Respect your veterinarian’s personal time by only contacting your veterinarian after normal business hours for true emergencies, not as a matter of convenience. (True story: I once answered a call at 4am for the customer to ask me what time we open that day.)
  2. Be responsive to the on-call vet, who may not be your regular vet, who treats your horse in an emergency. This is standard practice in human medicine.
  3. Use the same veterinary clinic for emergencies as you do for routine work. Due to a shortage of veterinarians, many clinics now do not serve non-clients in an emergency because they only have enough staff to serve existing clients.
  4. Welcome and encourage junior vets who are seeing cases at your vet’s practice. No doubt your vet has worked hard to recruit them, and a supportive environment is incredibly important for early career growth and career longevity.
  5. Take your horse to a centrally located practice or consider group calls whenever possible to make farm visits more efficient. This could even help keep costs lower.
  6. Have your horse come in from the field and be ready to be seen before your vet arrives. And to help keep everyone safe, train your horse to have good manners on the ground.
  7. Pay on time for services, which is critical to the sustainability of your equine veterinarian’s small business.
  8. Acknowledge how much you value the partnership with your veterinarian. A smile and a thank you go a long way. If your vet is late because he was held in an emergency, consider how hard he is working and how difficult it would be to replace him if he left his post.

Asking our clients for help is not a comfortable position for me and many horse doctors, but we know that you play a very important role in the much-needed transformation of equine practice. We can’t do it without you. Let’s work together for the horse.

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