Georgia, U.S. face veterinarian shortage

Alone on the Grange

The farm-to-feline practice of Dr. Donna Thompson carries the load of two Georgia counties and highlights a bigger problem—a vet shortage that affects humans beyond their pets.
By Candice Dyer
Under other circumstances, Lady would have been put down. The once-graceful horse, a piebald American Paint, kept walking in circles and falling, until finally she could rise no more.
“We don’t have any horse vets near here,” says Lady’s owner, Gina Davis, proprietor of Southern Class Farms in Toombs County. “Horses aren’t easy to transport like puppies; most vets don’t make house calls, and most vets today tend to be genuinely afraid of horses and large animals in the first place.”
Dr. Donna Thompson, though, is not like most vets; she does not shy away from any hurting animal, except maybe, she concedes, a rattlesnake. A couple of times a week, Thompson—the only veterinarian serving Telfair and Wheeler counties—extends her territory to Toombs to administer medicine and fluids to Lady, who is trussed and harnessed to stand upright for a long convalescence from a neurological disorder called equine protozoal myeloencephalitis.

“She’s able to walk some on her own now,” Thompson says. “I’d probably make more money around here as a mobile vet, because I wouldn’t have the overhead, but I like having my place.”

Her place is Countryside Veterinary Clinic, a mixed-animal practice (meaning she handles pets and livestock) in McRae, a flyspeck community of around 2,700 in the piney woods of South Georgia. Thompson, who earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in 2002 from the University of Georgia, says she was influenced early in life by All Creatures Great and Small, a series of stories about a mild-mannered country vet in England. “What we do here is really not that much different,” she says, even though the James Herriot mood is occasionally salted with a Harry Crews moment. “Dove season opened last week.” She points bleakly to a dog with bandages around two of its paws, hunched in a backroom recovery kennel. “This fella may have stumbled into the middle of a shoot or something. We’re not sure what happened, but it looks like he was shot deliberately. The sheriff’s looking into it.”

Thompson is the caretaker of about 3,000 regular patients, not including walk-ins. She is on call all the time, her cell phone number a sort of 911. The night before, her dinner was interrupted by a message about a listless goat. The next morning, after a few hours of gently prodding the bleating animal’s belly and treating his urinary infection, she called the owner and announced: “The kid just peed like a champ, but I’d like to keep him overnight.” The young goat cocked his head in her direction with seeming gratitude.

The grassy paddock and barn in back of Thompson’s downtown office are hospitable to ruminants like the goat, which are not always welcome at other clinics, even in this rural, agricultural belt. Fitting, considering her job title, coined in print as early as 1646, derives from the Latin veterinae, which means “working animals.” But as social perceptions of animals have shifted from chariot- and plow-pulling utility to fawning, sentimental anthropomorphism—98 percent of Americans count pets as “members of the family”—more veterinary grads are making a beeline for small-animal practices in the big city. Only 4 percent of UGA’s 2009 DVM grads entered large-animal medicine and 13 percent went to work in a mixed-animal practice, presumably because a cosseted shih tzu in Kirkwood commands less dirty work than a herd of Santa Gertrudis cattle kicking up muck in Hahira. Also, women have dominated vet schools since the early 1990s (and now constitute about 78 percent of grads nationwide) and traditionally have not gravitated as readily toward cattle, poultry, and hogs.

At the moment, thirty counties in Georgia lack a vet practice devoted to the “food supply” end of the field, and twenty-five of those are adjacent to each other, increasing the distance vets must travel to support agricultural clients. Moreover, about ten more counties are currently served by livestock vets who are near or past retirement age. They tend to trudge on until they can recruit replacements.

Before Thompson opened her doors in 2004, local owners of both livestock and little breeds were driving thirty minutes or more for treatment. “It would be nice to have another vet around, even on a part-time or fill-in basis, so I could take a vacation sometimes,” says Thompson, thirty-five, who grew up in Vidalia and speaks with a 98-degrees-in-the-shade Southern accent. “Atlanta is just very enticing to people. If I hadn’t grown up around here, I probably would not want to move here right out of school, either, so I understand.”

The veterinarian shortage in South Georgia proves frustrating and costly to aggies and pet owners and exhausting to Thompson and her colleagues. But it also highlights a much broader national shortage—projected to worsen by up to 5 percent annually—that threatens even the bipeds at the top of the food chain.
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