Ag commissioner: West Virginia working to address veterinarian shortage

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed written by W.Va. Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt.

During the pandemic, folks hunkered down and avoided social settings to stop the spread of the covid virus. As they avoided their friends and families, they sought out other types of companionship, household pets. Over the last two years, pet ownership rose as much as 70%, increasing the need for veterinarians of all types.

This has created a workforce crisis within the animal care industry. Even before the pandemic, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for veterinarians nationwide would increase 16%. This has compounded the national shortage for veterinary services, especially within our farming communities. In West Virginia, we have felt this shortage for many years, especially those doctors and technicians who specialize in large animals.  

As demand increases for household pets, we have seen many dual practice veterinarians drop the less profitable farm animal side of their practice for the household pet care business. Part of this equation is the national decline in dairy farms which were a mainstay for large animal practices. As the balance shifts away from large animal veterinarian care, it decreases access to services for all farmers, which creates another hindrance to growing animal-based agriculture in West Virginia. A safe, reliable food system falls on the shoulders of our veterinarian capacity. If we are going to work towards building local resiliency, we will need many more animal care professionals.

These professionals’ services are not isolated to just animal care, as most veterinarians have training in public health. The reason is many animal diseases can be transmitted to humans, so it is vital veterinarians understand the risk to human caretakers. WVDA Veterinarians worked closely with public health officials during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak as some cats and dogs showed symptoms. These animals were tested to ensure the spread wasn’t a risk to our animal populations as well as those who oversee shelters and humane societies. Being sure they weren’t infected was better than leaving it to chance, especially in the early, low-knowledge phase of the pandemic. 

Here at the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, we employ five full-time veterinarians. They work with colleagues around the state to create best practices as well as answer questions from the public. These folks are also on the front line, protecting our livestock industries by monitoring animal disease outbreaks. They are the ones overseeing emergency action plans and working with the industry to enhance biosecurity throughout West Virginia. From avian influenza to chronic wasting disease to African swine fever, these WVDA staffers show the importance these licensed professionals play in West Virginia. 

I am pleased that the legislature has taken up the discussion of how we best address the shortages of veterinary medicine. With the abundance of funding from numerous federal sources, now may be the right time to address this critical shortage. We should embrace new technology such as tele-veterinary medicine in combination with veterinary technicians for on-farm care. Any discussion that tries to tackle this issue must include veterinary technician programs as they may be a cost-effective way to move forward. I am proud of the work my staff is doing with WV State University and West Virginia University Davis College in a collaboration to build a four-year Food Animal Veterinary Technology Program.

Whatever the solution may be, we must act now before this problem has severe effects on our quality of life in West Virginia. For many of us, our animals are important parts of our families. For West Virginia’s local food systems to grow, we need to expand these services to our farmers. I applaud our Legislature for taking the time to see how we tackle these problems and move the industry forward. My hope is we can find cost-effective means to increase the necessary veterinary services to keep our food supply safe.

-Kent A. Leonhardt, West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture

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