Are Farm Calls by Vets Disappearing?

Farm calls

Freedom has expressed his solidarity with me by coming up three legged lame, favoring his left hind. According to my barn mate, who fed this morning, there’s nothing overtly wrong — no bleeding, no swelling, no heat, no stone in his hoof. Most likely, it’s an abscess. However, to make sure it’s nothing too serious, I sent the video below to my vet practice and one of the vets will come out tomorrow. How lucky I am to have a vet who still does farm calls! From what I’ve been reading online, that’s a service that’s disappearing in parts of the country with vets requesting owners “ship in.” Something that’s impossible when you don’t have your own trailer — or a friend with a trailer that can drop everything when your horse needs a ride (which is guaranteed to be at an inconvenient time).

What’s shaking up the Equine Vet industry? For one thing, fewer vets choose to go into equine (and other large animal) practices. Heck, the last time my cat needed dental work, the estimate was more than $4K. Put me in a time machine and I will go back and become a small animal specialist! And those vets work regular hours, without being on call in the middle of the night for colicking horses. Cats and dogs don’t kick you very often, either.

In 2020, there were 47,600 practicing veterinarians in the US. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association AVMA, only 5.7% (roughly 4,000) are equine vets. In 2017, there were an additional 4,220 vets involved in mixed practices. Every year, about 4,000 newly minted veterinarians graduate and join the work force, which adds only 200 or so new equine vets. Sprinkle them across the country and you won’t find too many outside of the coastal states.

Now, let’s look at the economics. The AVMA reports that veterinary school graduates had an average student loan debt of around $150,000, with many graduates owing closer to $400,000.

How does that investment work for them? The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that vets earn a median salary of $93,830. The best-paid veterinarians earn $162,450, while the lowest-paid earn $56,540.1

In terms of starting salaries, a 2019 AVMA Economic State of the Veterinary Profession report:

  • Small animal vets start at a mean salary of $87,000
  • Large animal vets (who treat farm animals) earn about $75,000
  • Mixed practice vets start at an average salary of $75,000
  • Equine vets start at the lowest salary, just above $50,000 a year.

This makes equine vets the least common and the worst paid! Compared to small animal practices, treating horses is also significantly more dangerous.

I’ve been using the same vet practice for many years, starting when the principal was a sole practitioner, a “truck vet”, who spent his days driving from barn to barn. It’s damned hard to make a living like that. Just the travel time alone is a killer! Over the years, he’s expanded, hired a team and built a clinic. But during this journey, I’ve seen the long hours and some very tired veterinarians.

I always try to remember that having a vet on call is a privilege. I use photos and videos to send information to the vets before the arrive. I call as soon as there’s a problem, rather than waiting until it’s after hours. If it’s cold out, or early, I try to bring hot coffee. When you’re at a small barn like I am, it’s less profitable for vets to send out their staff. So making them feel welcome is an important component.

I’m very grateful to be served by a practice that offers both the support of farm calls — getting a three-legged Freedom on a trailer while I have a broken ankle is a non starter — but also one that has the resources of a clinic. Not every vet can afford to set up a clinic. When Curly was injured last winter, she spent two weeks at the clinic because they were better equipped to treat her wounds and keep them clean. Not only did they have that service, since my tow vehicle was out of commission, one of the vets brought her trailer to the barn to pick Curly up!

Here’s hoping it is “only” an abscess.

Does your vet still make farm calls? Are you in a part of the country where veterinary care is getting hard to come by?

13 thoughts on “Are Farm Calls by Vets Disappearing?

  1. And who thinks it’s good to haul a lame horse?

    Here in the midwest we still have vets who routinely make farm calls but the travel fees are increasing. Our barn is small, too but we keep connections with multiple veterinarians. They have specialties and some of them frequently travel.

    Our dearth seems to be with small vets. Most have a waiting list for new clients. A young Tom cat recently wandered into our barn, which is common in the country. After a month of him terrifying our old cat, I decided he should be neutered. Most vets that I called were not taking new clients. One said check back in 4 months. One vet who promoted spay and neuter on the website didn’t do surgery. Prices quoted ranged from $46 plus shots to $350. We finally booked an appointment with an organization for low cost spay and neuter because it was the earliest appointment we could get and that was still a couple weeks out. But so weird. We drove through, handed off the kitty. At the end of the day, we drove through again and picked him up. That was $125. No wonder there are so many unwanted animals if it is that hard just to get a male cat neutered!

    I loved this article by the way.

  2. A local clinic tried that a few years back. Didnt take. In a way, I see their point. If you have a trailer, its way easier to get everything done at the clinic. Current vet is mixed, clinic & farm calls. Seems to be the common practice out here. I assume they will always make farm calls to big operations. Can you imaginr getting 20, or 50, horses to the clinic for Coggins?

    1. There are so many situations where it’s almost impossible to truck in. I’m lucky that I have vets that will come to a small operation. It’s so much more profitable for them to go to the larger barns where horses are getting more treatments. I definitely ship in for some things — my horses live outside so for joint injections, for example, I would ship into a clinic to keep everything sterile. Freedom had his SI joint injected a few years ago and I wouldn’t that done outside the clinic.

  3. Here in the Cleveland area, there are a lot of equine vets, and they all make barn calls. There are some specialty clinics that you have to trailer in, but they are only for things that the regular vets can’t do. I’m sure that being in a heavily populated area that also has 2 race tracks helps out. We are very lucky. (When Cruiser bowed a tendon, I was actually able to get one of the best tendon vets in the country to come out to our barn and take care of him through the whole recovery.)

    1. I lived in Pepper Pike for a couple of years and remember how great the vets were in the area. Did you ever use Dr. Ron? He did the PPE on my horse and he was amazing. That was back in the day where you need to do real x-rays and wait for the films to be developed!

  4. This is scary. I’m lucky in that my area, the large animal vets still make barn calls, but it certainly points to a disturbing trend in more than just veterinary medicine. For instance, our local animal shelter is no longer called a shelter but a ‘service’. They will not pick up abused or neglected cats or dogs, preferring ‘mediation’ with the neglectful or abuse owner. They don’t want to take in feral cats that I’ve trapped, insisting rather that I ‘foster’ them. They won’t even allow people to adopt a dog in their shelter unless you have a 6 foot fenced yard.

    It’s scary to think equine vets think it’s okay to load a colicking horse onto a trailer.

    The small animal vets in my area now require an appointment….and those are, right now, out three weeks if you’re lucky.

    Industries that require manual labor…and equine vets do that every day…are finding it harder and harder to find people who are willing to do the work. I’m not talking about picking fruit, either. My plumber and my electrician both cannot find people to start at the bottom, which, in both industries, are a requirement before one becomes a full fledged plumber or electrician. The ‘kids’…and that’s who I’m pointing fingers at…people out of high school, in their early twenties, etc, just don’t want to do that sort of work. They want be IT’s and computer programmers.

    If you want to hear something even more worrisome…the military, especially the US Army and Marines…can’t fill the ranks. The kids don’t want to join. Even worse, most of them can’t enlist because they’re too fat.

  5. I hear you on the animal adoptions. To get our last cat, who was found living in a dumpster, we needed two vet references and had to fill out a questionnaire that included the type of food we feed and the litter we use! He was living in a dumpster! Almost all the dog adoptions require a fenced in yard now, so we wouldn’t be able to adopt — we’d be better off going to a breeder who asks fewer questions. I completely understand wanting animals to go to people who understand the commitment but with adoption fees skyrocketing and the number of conditions increasing, it’s getting much harder. When we adopted our last two dogs (one was a purebred Westie) the adoption fee was $100.

    We also have had to delay work on our house because the contractor can’t find enough carpenters. There is a real labor shortage.

    I’m not surprised about the military, but it is worrying.

  6. We were in a situation recently where we were trying to help a gal with a week-old foal who had a suspected patent urachus and possible infection. The gal had no resources for vet care so we offered to pay the fees if it turned out that the foal needed surgery. We could not find a vet to see him. We live on a farm and have used the services of a mixed vet practice (large and small animal) on occasion over the years for both our livestock and pets so we were at least considered a client of theirs and were able to slip in because of that.

    We made an appointment to have a vet come out to the farm and waited several days, only to receive a phone message late the day before the appointment informing us that they would not be sending anyone out and that we should find a different vet. No apology, no reference, no nothing. We were furious and will never use that practice again. Other local vets are not taking new clients.

    In the end the foal’s owner loaded him into a trailer and hauled him three hours to a vet that she knew from when she used to live in that area. Thankfully he survived without surgery, but it was scary.

    Not long after that we acquired a horse of our own, for the first time in over 40 years. We almost didn’t, simply due to the lack of veterinary care. But then we found a new-ish vet who specializes in equine care. She is 50 miles from us but will make a farm call- but she is often booked up six or more weeks out. Fingers crossed we never have an emergency. Her travel fee is actually pretty reasonable, but we live in a rural area where incomes are generally pretty low. But still, right before we went to pick up our new horse I talked my husband into buying a horse trailer- we had planned to rent one- and the main reason was that if we ever have to get him to a vet I don’t want to have to run around trying to arrange transport.

    Not horse-related, but we have done rescue work with Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs for many years. We have fostered a bunch of dogs and never adopted one out- we wind up keeping them. All of them. So we usually have around a half-dozen of them, until recently when after losing the oldest few we now find ourselves with just our two show pups. We have decided to stop fostering/adopting because our regular vet, who is also a good friend, is in her ’60’s, in poor health, has reduced her hours to just three days a week, and will probably either retire or die soon, maybe both. That will leave us without a local vet as our backup vet is over an hour away and no local clinics are accepting new clients, even for small animals. Our backup vet, also in a rural area, is pretty reasonably priced, but if we had to go to the Cities I don’t know that we could afford to pay a vet down there. The last time we had fecals done by our regular vet we paid $10 each. I recently took a dog which I co-own to our (very expensive!) repro vet (in the Cities, and his breeder pays the bills for repro work). He needed a fecal done so I took a sample along- without first asking how much it would cost. I nearly fainted when I got the bill- $47. For a fecal. Ouch! So yeah, we will not be adding any new dogs to our pack, probably ever. Now that we have a horse, and plans to get another one in the spring, we will be saving our pennies to pay for equine care, and hope that we can find a vet when we need one.

  7. I knew about the shortage of equine vets, but not that some places are even short on small animal ones! That is truly shocking. It seems like here in St. Louis there is a small animal practice on every corner. I even know of an intersection where no joke, there is a hospital on 3/4 corners! I guess it’s the proximity to the Univ. of Missouri vet school but you have no excuse for not getting your pet attended to here, at least. Still, they are extremely busy and prices have increased; just yesterday my doggie had (what we thought was) an urgent issue and I had to pay an extra $30 on the exam fee to get him in the same day. That never used to happen in the past. (Dog is right as rain today, thankfully)

    We also are blessed with a number of excellent equine vets. The biggest/arguably the best clinic is 5 minutes from my barn. Spoiled, yes! They are kept hopping and thankfully still make farm calls. I can’t imagine life where your horse vet does not!

    I had the opportunity to talk to a retired equine vet this summer. He said he packed it in when he realized he wasn’t physically up to the job anymore (he was 58), and after a fellow horse vet and good friend of his was killed by a horse… Horrible story to hear, the guy was in a stall at night by himself as owner hadn’t made it to the barn yet and they found him deceased with a head injury. 🙁

    It’s certainly a hazardous job any day and I understand it’s not for everyone. I’m sure you’ve heard of the truly heartbreaking rise in veterinarian suicides, too. I had planned to be a vet and I still adore the diagnostic end of things, but realized I couldn’t handle the emotional or physical requirements. I’m glad I didn’t do it now, but gosh, we had all better pray others WILL!

    1. I think it’s easy to forget the danger that is involved with treating large animals. My own Zelda HATES having the internasal Strangles vaccine. After watching her toss a vet into the air, I suggested that we find another way to give it to her as even when sedated (we gave it to her after her teeth were done one year), she puts up a big fuss and is too big to take lightly. I can see how quickly things can go wrong.

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