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