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Measure seeks to address Iowa's shortage of veterinarians

Erin Jordan
The Gazette
Alana McNutt, a veterinarian at Tipton Veterinary Services, closes a cattle chute before vaccinating cattle on a farm in rural Lisbon, Iowa. According to reports, there is a shortage of mixed animal and farm animal veterinarians across the country because of the unpredictable hours and the need to live in rural areas.

LISBON, Iowa (AP) – Like most rural veterinarians, Dr. Alana McNutt is a jack of all trades.

Early in the week, she did hysterectomies on two cats and two dogs before loading up her pickup to go to a farm near Lisbon where she vaccinated and provided other care to 1,000-pound cattle.

And because it's calving season, McNutt, 35, is ready for emergency calls when a mama cow, goat or sheep is struggling to deliver a baby.

"The biggest challenge a mixed animal veterinarian faces is some percentage has to be emergency work," she said of veterinarians who treat both pets and farm animals.

According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, there is a shortage of mixed animal and farm animal veterinarians across the country because of the unpredictable hours and the need to live in rural areas.

To recruit more rural veterinarians — critically important in a state that is the No. 1 producer of hogs and eggs — the Iowa Legislature has proposed repaying student loans for vets who work in an underserved area for four years.

"The big thing in Iowa is we're the largest animal agriculture state in the U.S. so it's very important we have veterinarians and farmers to take care of these animals," said Dr. Randy Wheeler, executive director of the Iowa Veterinary Medicine Association.

House File 2615 provides up to $15,000 a year, up to $60,000 over four years, in loan repayment for at least five veterinarians a year who commit to serving in rural areas in the state. To qualify, veterinarians must care for "food supply" animals or have a focus in food safety, epidemiology, public health or animal health.

If approved, the program would need an appropriation of $300,000 a year, said Rep. Norlin Mommsen, R-DeWitt, who is the floor manager for the bill.

"We've been talking to Rep. Kerr about putting money into the education budget for it," Mommsen said, referring to David Kerr, R-Morning Sun, who chairs the Education Appropriations subcommittee. "It's not a done deal, (but) there seems to be a consensus it's necessary thing."

A state program would supplement the federal Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program, in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture pays up to $25,000 each year toward education loans of vets who agree to serve in a designated shortage area for three years.

For this program, Iowa has identified seven counties as having shortage situations: Carroll, Cedar, Cherokee, Humboldt, Jasper, Jefferson and Union counties.

Graduates of the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine leave with an average debt load of $142,000, according to an article last fall by Dave Gieseke in the college's Gentle Doctor magazine. Average starting salaries in Iowa are about $70,000, but the perception is rural salaries are at the lower end.

Dr. Rachel DeSotel, 32, of Kalona, graduated from veterinary school at Kansas State University in 2014 with about $250,000 in debt.

She's applied three times for the federal loan repayment program and has been turned down every time, despite working in rural Washington County, which qualifies because it is adjacent to Jefferson County.

Alana McNutt, a veterinarian at Tipton Veterinary Services, works on both large and small animals at the veterinary clinic.

"Only so many are going to get it from the federal level," she said. "There are a lot of counties and a lot of vets who need assistance, all vying for just a few awards."

The Nauvoo, Ill., native chose to work for Schlapkohl Veterinary Services in Kalona because she fell in love with the community and enjoys caring for dairy goats and working horses owned by many Amish farmers.

But persuading young vet school graduates to move to rural areas can be a tough sell, especially if they also need to find work for a spouse, Wheeler said.

About 40 percent of ISU's 2020-2022 graduating classes are on the academic track to care for companion animals, like cats and dogs, ISU reported. Another 35 percent plan to work in a mixed animal practice, while only 18 percent say they will be focused on food animals, including cattle and swine.

Wheeler, who worked as a mixed animal veterinarian for 30 years, said he has seen veterinary practices in urban areas grow while rural offices are consolidating. This means if there is an animal emergency, a veterinarian may have to drive 30 minutes to an hour versus 15 minutes to provide treatment.

When veterinarians are more frequently on a farm, they are more likely to spot sick animals before the animals infect the rest of the barn, Wheeler said. "Lay people can castrate and dehorn, but they don't always recognize if an animal is sick," he said.

McNutt, who grew up in Tipton and is the daughter of veterinarian Dr. Jim McNutt, purchased Tipton Veterinary Services in 2018 with her husband, Dr. John Prickett. They have been struggling to hire two new veterinarians, she said.

"I personally want to strive for a nice work-life balance and you can't do that if you're on call 24/7," said the mother of two young children. "The only way you can do that is spread out your workload by hiring more veterinarians."