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WKYT Investigates | Rural veterinarian shortages at ‘critical’ level, experts say

State leaders have identified several areas in Kentucky where more vets are needed to take care of food animals.
Updated: Aug. 2, 2021 at 4:00 PM EDT
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WEST LIBERTY, Ky. (WKYT) - Whether he is in the building or in the barn out back, Dr. David Fugate never knows what a day will hold. He just knows it is going to be busy.

Nearly non-stop he moves from exams, to follow-ups, to surgeries - castrating a horse, performing an ultrasound on a dog recovering from pancreatitis, treating a skin infection on another animal, sewing up a dog’s hip that was hit by a car.

At West Liberty Veterinary Clinic, their hands are full. So are their phone lines, waiting room and parking lot.

One after another, the walk-ins keep coming.

And it has been like that just about every day for more than a year now at the mixed-animal practice in Appalachian Kentucky.

Their five doctors saw thousands of new animal patients last year, according to the clinic’s office manager, in part because of a rise in pet ownership and the loss of two veterinarians in the area.

“It’s critical. It’s critical at this point,” Dr. Fugate said. “Critical that we find and retain some of our talent that we produce out of the hills - as well as attract outside talent.”

Multiple people in the industry who have spoken with WKYT’s Garrett Wymer say the past year has further exposed a shortage in veterinarians as fewer doctors try to keep up with more demand.

State leaders say they are aware of a growing shortage of veterinarians like Dr. Fugate, who, in rural areas especially, take care of not just pets, but the animals that make up our food supply.

“We’re growing our food here in Kentucky, and we need to be able to support that with our veterinary care for those animals,” said Dr. Katie Flynn, state veterinarian with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

And the shortage situation could get worse.

Industry groups predict 20 percent of large-animal veterinarians across the country will retire in the next decade, and fewer students are going into large-animal practice, particularly in rural areas, Dr. Flynn said - altogether a recipe for concern in places like eastern Kentucky.

“It is a national issue,” Dr. Flynn said, “it’s not just a Kentucky issue.”

Burnout - in a profession with disproportionately high suicide rates - is also a major issue.

The Kentucky Department of Agriculture has nominated six shortage areas to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, part of an incentive program to bring veterinarians to areas where they are needed in exchange for helping repay what are often sizable vet school student loans.

Four of the shortage areas nominated for the current fiscal year are for food animal medicine in rural areas:

  • A geographic area with a 50 mile radius that includes all or part of the following counties: Adair, Anderson, Barron, Bullitt, Casey, Clinton, Cumberland, Edmonson, Garrard, Grayson, Green, Hardin, Hart, Larue, Lincoln, Marion, Mercer, Metcalf, Monroe, Nelson, Pulaski, Russell, Spencer, Taylor, Washington, Wayne
  • A geographic area with a 50 mile radius that includes all or part of the following counties: Breckinridge, Butler, Caldwell, Christian, Crittenden, Daviess, eastern Todd, Edmonson, Grayson, Hancock, Henderson, Hopkins, Logan, McLean, Muhlenberg, Ohio, Simpson, Trigg, Union, Warren, Webster
  • A geographic area with a 50 mile radius that includes all or part of the following counties:, Anderson, Bath, Boone, Bourbon, Boyle, Bracken, Campbell, Carroll, Clark, Estill, Fayette, Fleming, Franklin, Gallatin, Garrard, Grant, Harrison, Henry, Jefferson, Jessamine, Kenton, Lincoln, Madison, Mason, Menifee, Mercer, Montgomery, Nelson, Nicholas, Oldham, Owen, Pendleton, Powell, Robertson, Scott, Shelby, Spencer, Trimble, Washington, Woodford
  • A geographic area with a 50 mile radius that includes all or part of the following counties: Bath, Bourbon, Boyd, Breathitt, Carter, Clark, Clay, Elliott, Estill, Fleming, Floyd, Greenup, Jackson, Johnson, Knott, Lawrence, Lee, Leslie, Lewis, Madison, Magoffin, Martin, Menifee, Montgomery, Morgan, Nicholas, Owsley, Perry, Pike, Powell, Rowan, Wolfe

Unfortunately, the federal program has filled only six of 22 shortages nominated by the state since 2017.

Through the Veterinary Services Grant Program, the state is also collaborating with Auburn’s veterinary school and the Kentucky Veterinary Medical Association for a project that helps with recruitment and support of veterinarians in rural areas, Dr. Flynn said. Part of that is a preceptorship program that pairs vet students with mentors in under-served areas. It also looks at financial/business models that could be successful in rural areas.

“Veterinarians are there to treat the animal, they want the best for the animal,” Dr. Flynn said. “And it’s a struggle when there’s challenges of ‘you just can’t meet the need.’”

It is particularly prevalent, experts say, because it can be hard to recruit vets to rural areas. In addition to challenges with the job itself, practices often cannot pay as much - because they often cannot charge as much - as practices in more urban areas, making small-animal jobs more attractive to many vet school grads.

All five doctors on staff at West Liberty Vet Clinic are from eastern Kentucky.

“We could pack up and leave and go somewhere else where they make more money. But the animals don’t get to pick where they go, where they live at. And I love it here,” Dr. Fugate said. “It’s a good place to live, but there’s a stigma that’s settled on us. It’s not all stigma - we’ve got real job problems and real other problems. I don’t want veterinary care to be one of them.”

Dr. Fugate said veterinarians as a whole must be willing to pay more, mentor more and think outside of the box more. To that end, he plans to put in a daycare in a building on the property beside the clinic to make his positions more attractive.

In the meantime he and his colleagues keep going - and there is plenty of work to do.

Yet amid hardship - the injured and ill animals - there are moments of renewal, rebirth and reminders of why they are here, why they do what they do.

“They feed us. They comfort us. They love us,” Dr. Fugate said of the wide range of animals they care for. “And that falls on us to make sure that’s all safe.”

They know they are making a difference. They just wish they had more hands to help.

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