The Impending Equine Health Care Crisis

The supply of equine veterinarians is diminishing rapidly. How can horse owners help?
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Many veterinary practices currently have too few practitioners to serve their clients. | Courtesy Dr. Ann Lynch
A crisis is brewing for your horse. This growing threat has been largely silent but is now creating alarm in many parts of the United States. All indicators show the situation worsening, with the potential to impact all horses. What is this existential threat? The rapidly diminishing supply of equine veterinarians.

At this moment many veterinary practices have too few practitioners to serve their clients, leaving horses in need of health care and equine veterinarians stretched beyond their capabilities. Many of you have already been affected, either by waiting longer for an appointment or not having access to after-hours services.

In 2021 the American Veterinary Medical Association reported that of 3,311 U.S. veterinary school graduates, 46 (1.4%) entered equine private practice at graduation and another 97 (2.9%) entered equine internships. The survey revealed that within five years, 50% of these young veterinarians leave the field. That isn’t a typo; 50% really do leave equine veterinary medicine after five years for small animal practice or quit veterinary medicine altogether.

Driving this exodus are the personal demands and lower starting salaries of equine practice. In 2022 the mean reported starting salary for small animal practitioners was $110,000, plus a four-day work week and no emergency duty. A new equine practitioner reportedly makes a third to a half less, for a longer work week with on-call hours. Many new graduates carry more than $200,000 in student loan debt, making a job with low pay often unthinkable, no matter how much they desire 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 each equine veterinarian’s responsibility to ensure emergency care for clients. For many practitioners, their job is 24/7. This takes its toll on the veterinarian’s mental and physical health and their families. Many choose to leave the job 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 practice culture.

What can you do as a horse owner?

  1. Honor your veterinarian’s personal time by only contacting them after normal business hours for true emergencies, not as a matter of convenience. (True story: I once answered a call at 4 a.m. to have the client ask me what time we opened that day.)
  2. Be receptive to the veterinarian on call—who might not be your regular vet—treating your horse in case of emergency. This is standard practice in human medicine.
  3. Use the same veterinary clinic for emergencies as you do for routine work. Due to the veterinarian shortage, many clinics now won’t see nonclients on emergency because they only have enough staff to serve existing clients.
  4. Welcome and encourage young veterinarians who are seeing cases at your veterinarian’s practice. Your vet has no doubt worked hard to recruit them, and a supportive environment is incredibly important for early career growth and professional longevity.
  5. Haul your horse to a centrally located practice or consider group calls whenever possible to make farm visits more efficient. This might even help keep costs lower.
  6. Have your horse in from the field and ready to be seen before your veterinarian arrives. And to help keep everyone safe, train your horse to have good ground manners.
  7. Pay promptly for services, which is critical to 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 they were held at an emergency, be mindful of how hard they are working and how difficult it would be to replace them if they left their position.

Asking for help from our clients is not a comfortable position for me and many horse doctors, but we know you play a huge 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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Written by:

Emma Read, DVM, MVSc, Dipl. ACVS, is the 2022 president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the associate dean of professional programs and a clinical professor at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, in Columbus.

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