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Rural Texas feels the squeeze of vet shortages


By Jennifer Dorsett

It’s not even 9 a.m., and the day is already booked for veterinarians Zach Smith and Amber Finck.

It’s been a busy Monday morning at their Dimmitt Veterinary Clinic practice. A cow needs an emergency Caesarean-section. There’s a sick dog in the waiting room, a horse to be gelded, a pair of puppies awaiting spay and neuter surgeries, and someone just called about a colicky horse.

This scene is replayed across hundreds of rural Texas veterinary clinics every day. There’s a shortage of graduating veterinarians willing to practice in rural areas or on large animals. And practicing vets—as well as their clients—are feeling the squeeze.

“We are short of vets in this area, especially big animal vets. There aren’t as many vets up here as there are in other areas, I guess mainly because there aren’t as many people,” Castro County Farm Bureau member James Simpson said. “But we still have a need for them, because we actually have a lot more animals out here.”

Simpson, who farms cotton, corn and raises beef and show cattle in the Texas Panhandle, is the owner of the cow that needed an emergency Caesarean-section after she experienced calving complications.

“It’s sort of an ordeal to get something done on the weekend,” he said, referring to a veterinarian making a call to his property. “It’s nearly impossible to get anything done. And then during the week, they’re all real busy, too.”
But Simpson doesn’t fault the veterinarians for not making more weekend or emergency calls. He said they simply don’t have the capacity to handle it all.

“In the cattle industry, the relationship between a vet and a rancher is very important, because you depend on him in times of need, and he has to be able to help you out when you need him,” Simpson said. “Vets are doing a lot more with cattle than they used to do, and it just takes more of them. There are more feedyards, which takes more vets, and there are just fewer vets now that want to do the cattle end of it.”

More than 13 percent of the U.S. cattle inventory is in Texas, and of those, the vast majority are concentrated in the Panhandle. Smith said the cooler nighttime temperatures and semi-arid climate are ideal for dairies and feedlots.

In fact, a recent county estimate map from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service shows Castro County to be second only to Deaf Smith County in the number of all cattle and calves as of Jan. 1.

Simpson said having another veterinary school of medicine in Texas will help, but he especially thinks a vet school in the Panhandle will assist residents and clinic owners in persuading new graduates to practice in rural areas and smaller towns.

Practicing medicine—whether human or animal—in a rural setting takes a special type of person.

Smith said he always knew he wanted to be a veterinarian and live in a small town like the one he grew up in. And he knew there’d be a place for him, because many vet school graduates want to move to cities or places with what they consider more lucrative practices and locales.

“There are not a lot of people who want to live in small towns, Panhandle towns. But a lot of that comes from the recruiting they’ve done in vet schools,” Smith said. “They weren’t recruiting a lot of people from agricultural backgrounds anymore. I’d say probably 75 to 80 percent of new graduates probably plan on going to a small animal, big city practice.”

There’s a necessary balance to be achieved between the number of veterinarians and what type of practice they engage in, but Smith said right now, the need is large. He hopes the new Texas Tech Veterinary School of Medicine and the expansion of Texas A&M’s veterinary program to Canyon’s West Texas A&M University campus will provide that right mix of people.

“Hopefully, the new veterinary schools will recruit some more agriculturally-minded people,” he said. “They’ve began to do some of that. It’s just going to take some time for them to turn those kids out, and then hopefully get enough of them to fill up these voids that we have right now.”

Currently, Smith and Finck operate the only veterinary clinic in Dimmitt. Smith said there used to be another vet practicing in Dimmitt, but he moved away about a year-and-a-half ago.

The duo has been actively looking for a replacement since then. But the town needs a veterinarian who is willing to work on both large and small animals.

“Our economy is very agricultural-based, so we have a lot of people that make their living with cattle, or horses or any number of large animals out there,” Smith said. “So that’s a big part of our local economy, and it’s part of society around here, as well.”

He said being a rural veterinarian with a mixed practice is not without its challenges. The hours can be long, and it’s frustrating to not be able to help every person who calls with an emergency.

“We tend to be on call more often. In the big city, they may have an emergency clinic that’s dedicated to handling accidents and illnesses in small animals or pets, but being on call is a lot different in a large animal setting,” Smith said.

He wouldn’t trade it for anything, though. While the job can be tough, it’s also gratifying and fulfilling.

Smith said he doesn’t just help animals. Despite some of the negative connotations of rural communities, he enjoys the pace of small-town life and its people.

“Probably the most rewarding part for me is the clients,” he said. “The clients aren’t just clients, they’re my friends. The people are great, and it’s a good place to make a living.”

Finck, who originally hails from Geneva, Nebraska, couldn’t agree more.

When she graduated from Iowa State University’s veterinary medicine school, she knew she wanted to work in a mixed animal practice, but she didn’t expect to end up in the Texas Panhandle.

“There’s a lot to get used to, but it’s wonderful. I don’t think I would want to live anywhere else now,” she said.
Working with the people from the area and seeing different species of animals each day keeps life interesting. And enjoyable.

“It’s just the combination of everything. You never know what you’re going to do in a day,” Finck said. “Every day is different. I really enjoy working with the people, with their animals. It doesn’t matter if it’s a cat or a dog in the exam room or if you go out to a farm.”

In addition to basic medical services, Finck brought complementary medicine therapies to the clinic, and people come from miles around for her to help their animals.

“We do acupuncture and chiropractic work as kind of another tool in the toolbox,” she said. “People will walk in from Hereford or Lubbock or Amarillo, Clovis. We’ve had people come from as close as Pampa and all the way from Aleida, New Mexico.”

She said she has practiced the therapies on almost every type of animal she sees. Cattle, horses, cats, dogs, pigs and sheep have all been treated by Finck through acupuncture or chiropractic care.

On this particular day, a woman from Canyon brought her 15-year-old pug for his biweekly acupuncture treatment. Another client in the waiting room had traveled from Amarillo to have her dog seen by Finck.

While she welcomes the chance to treat animals with new therapies that may bring them pain relief or healing, Finck said it adds to the client load. Not that it’s a bad thing.

“People come here because of word of mouth, how your practice is run or for convenience,” she said. “Maybe they couldn’t get into somebody else quickly, but they could get into us on that day. But sometimes people from far off are wanting us to come see their animals, and we may just not have time because we have so much going on with our local business. It’s a good problem to have.”

More veterinarians in the area would help, she said, but they must be willing to see large animals.

“Everybody has animals. They have livestock. They have pets, and you’re just part of the community,” she said. “It’s always changing. You have emergencies. You have cow C-sections. You have dog C-sections. You have a cut-up horse that needs to come in or a dog that got run over. You have an idea of what your day is going to look like but need to be ready to roll with anything that might show up.”

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