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Dying breed: Loan forgiveness, earlier recruitment pipeline among ideas to boost the number of large animal veterinarians in Kentucky

Veterinarian Jeremy Creek of Scottsville, KY examines a horse alongside owner John Sullivan.
Lisa Autry | WKU Public Radio
Veterinarian Jeremy Creek of Scottsville examines a horse alongside owner John Sullivan.

For decades, farmers in Kentucky have suffered a shortage of rural veterinarians who specialize in the care of large animals. According to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, only 3% of the state’s veterinarians treat farm animals like cows, pigs, and sheep. As experts fear the shortage could threaten the nation’s food supply, stakeholders in the commonwealth have spent the past year working on solutions.

One example of the importance of—and challenges facing—large animal veterinarians can be found in Allen County, Ky.

Few professions require someone to be a cowboy and doctor all in a day’s work, but that’s exactly what Jeremy Creek does as a large animal veterinarian. Creek runs a mobile clinic and recently found his way heading to a remove fencing wire wrapped around the leg of a cow.

“They called this morning and said they couldn’t catch her, and that needs to come off pretty quickly," Creek said.

He pulled up to a farm on Mount Union Rd. in Scottsville where the owner was waiting to let him inside the gate.

Runaway cow

Creek rolled his truck close to the cow, put it in park, and grabbed a tranquilizer gun. Once the cow was hit with a dart, Creek got back inside the truck and waited.

“I should be able to get a rope on her and get her tied to something where I can work on her," Creek said. "I try not to shoot them more than once if I don’t have to."

Fifteen minutes later, the cow was sedated enough for him to tie her to a tree, remove the wire, and look for wounds.

“Not really hurt at all. It didn’t even cut the skin," Creek said. "It was on there pretty tight though.”

But with Dr. Creek’s rope still around her neck, the cow jumped up and took off at a rate of speed that’s impressive for a 1,000-pound animal. Treatment didn’t go exactly as planned as Creek gave chase on foot and by truck. But he wasn't able to catch the animal and to plan a return trip the following day to retrieve the rope.

You could say Creek’s profession is less civilized than treating dogs and cats, but that’s also what he likes about being a large animal veterinarian.

“For one, you get to work outdoors. You don’t really have any set office hours, and you have a lot of freedom. I like the people I work with.”

His clientele is mostly farmers and Mennonites in rural Allen County.

Few vets go the large animal route, and many are close to retirement

But most new veterinary graduates opt for office life, working on small companion animals like puppies and kittens, and the bigger paycheck. Kentucky and the nation have been dealing with a shortage of large animal vets for at least a decade, but the problem is worsening. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 500 counties across 46 states reported critical shortages last year.

The Kentucky Board of Examiners reports that 39% of veterinarians with active licenses are identified as 55 years or older, meaning they’re within ten years of retirement age.

Then-Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles formed a working group last year to find solutions for attracting Kentucky students to large animal medicine.

“We have to find Kentuckians that want to go back to rural Kentucky," Quarles said. "It’s the same thing the medical profession is addressing right now.”

The working group released its final report last month. One of the members was Dr. Randy Evans, an Associate Dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Lincoln Memorial University. LMU is a private university in Harrogate, TN. Located in the Appalachian Mountains on the Kentucky border, the school recruits students from the eastern part of the Bluegrass State.

Dr. Evans said one of the group’s recommendations is to start the recruitment pipeline earlier.

“Not only start in high school, but go all the way back to elementary school and reach out to students with educational programs to help them understand what veterinary medicine is all about," Evans said. "Then, continue those lessons throughout middle and high school and help them understand the steps they need to take to be successful.”

According to Evans, another suggestion is to provide students with more opportunities to gain experience practicing in rural Kentucky while attending vet school.

Some ideas will require government action on the state and federal levels. The work group wants the General Assembly to expand Kentucky’s out-of-state veterinary contract seats at Auburn University and other colleges of veterinary medicine, including LMU, where Evans teaches.

“The state of Kentucky will pay the out-of-state tuition and the student from Kentucky will just pay in-state tuition," Evans explained. "Since we are a private institution, our tuition is $52,500 per year, but if we could obtain some of the Kentucky contract seats, that would be a significant savings to students."

Murray State University is seeking money from the Kentucky General Assembly to build the state’s first school of veterinary medicine. A resolution passed by Trigg County Fiscal Court in late December says the state has spent more than $11 million the last two years to fund veterinary spots for Kentucky students at out-of-state universities.

The cost of attending veterinary school turns some prospective students away, and those who stick it out, can graduate with six-figure debt.

“If a young kid asked me today if it would be a good idea to go to vet school, I think they’d really need to think about it," Dr. Jeremy Creek of Allen County, Ky., said. "What it costs to go versus what you’re starting salary is, it just doesn’t really pan out for five to 10 years while you’re out working.”

That’s especially true for large animal veterinarians. Creek supplements his income by spaying and neutering animals for the Bowling Green Humane Society.

The work group recommends Kentucky create a state-level educational loan forgiveness program like the federal Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP). It pays up to $75,000 over three years to eligible graduates who agree to work in a veterinarian shortage area. Loan forgiveness would also help vet school graduates buy a practice or set up their own.

In 2023, the U.S. Senate established a Veterinary Medicine Caucus for the first time in its history. Also last year, a bill was introduced in Congress to end federal taxes on awards from the VMLRP.

Back on the farm in Allen County, Dr. Creek treated a 16-year-old registered quarter horse named Jess.

"She’s a good girl," said owner John Sullivan. "I don’t know if she’s got an abscess in that foot. She got to where she wouldn't put any weight on it."

"You can see some fluid in there," Creek said, after looking the animal over. “I think it’s already trying to heal itself. With abscesses, the main thing is trying to get them drained.”

During the treatment, the horse violently pulled away from the wooden beam she was attached to inside a barn. The force broke the wood.

Creek was still able to drain fluid from the abscess and administer an antibiotic.

While often a struggle to find farm animal veterinarians, Sullivan feels fortunate to have found a mobile clinic.

"It’s appreciated. He’s a friend of a friend of mine and that’s how I heard about him," said Sullivan.

Wrestling cows and avoiding getting crushed by horses. It’s all in a day’s work for a large animal veterinarians. With a shortage that could threaten the nation’s food supply, stakeholders in Kentucky are working to reinvigorate a dying breed.

Lisa is a Scottsville native and WKU alum. She has worked in radio as a news reporter and anchor for 18 years. Prior to joining WKU Public Radio, she most recently worked at WHAS in Louisville and WLAC in Nashville. She has received numerous awards from the Associated Press, including Best Reporter in Kentucky. Many of her stories have been heard on NPR.