These days, the vast majority of vets work with small companion animals in urban areas, while mixed and large-animal practicesâmost of them regionally basedâfind it difficult to recruit or retain skilled vets. âItâs harder to get any vetsârecent grads or experiencedâinto country large-animal practices,â says Mark Eagleton, owner of veterinary recruitment service VetLink. âMany start off in mixed or large-animal practices but find itâs a hard, challenging role, so they drift back to the cities. A big reason is that few city practices require after-hours work.â
Dr Debbie Neutze, policy manager with the Australian Veterinary Association, says the issueâs not that large-animal workâs unrewarding. âThe issues that make it difficult for rural doctors and dentists are the same for veterinarians: real or perceived limited social opportunities; work for their partners and schooling for their families,â she says.
âThese issues make it increasingly hard for any rural practice to attract and retain veterinarians.â
What these practices can offer vets, along with a diverse range of patients, is a slower, simpler, healthier lifestyle; cheaper real estate; space for growing families; and being on nodding, talking terms with everyoneâincluding customers.
For city-bred vets, these pluses are typically outweighed by perceived negatives. But for those raised on farms, a rural large-animal practice is a natural fit.
Large-animal vet âbrain drainâ?
Dr Kathy Webb, owner and principal vet at Nanango Country Vets in regional Queensland, knows just how hard it is.
Raised in country towns, Webb married a Nanango grazier with a cattle property. She loves âthe country lifestyleâ and the diversity and challenges of large-animal work, but says city-trained vets can find it a challenge.
âIâve worked mostly on my own for 23 years,â says Webb. âMy practice is only one to two vets at any time, and I can only speak from my experience. I have had some keen and promising new graduates come in over the years but Iâve found it difficult to support them in permanent positions so that is one reason that they move on.
âI get the odd new grad or locum coming through, working casual, part-time or full-time, but they arenât always keen to do after-hours work for award wages, and can sometimes struggle to handle jobs after-hours like calvings, colics and stitch-ups. It is also very difficult to find a suitable locum that can handle both large and small animals.
âDealing with clients and jobs solo after hours can be also daunting to the inexperienced veterinarian,â she admits. âOften the young vets prefer to move on to small-animal practices.â
Dealing with clients and jobs solo after hours can be also daunting to the inexperienced veterinarian. Often the young vets prefer to move on to small-animal practices.ââDr Kathy Webb, Nanango Country Vets, QLD
In agribusiness, where âitâs all about the economicsâ, thereâs little room for sentiment. âI got called out the other day to a sick, heavily pregnant cow. She was dying, and the risk was that the calf would be lost too. There was nothing I could do to save the cow. I just said, âAlright, take a clean shot and Iâll cut the calf outâ. In the end, the farmer got a live healthy calf to rear. Such action, though done humanely, can be confronting. Young vets need to be able to cope with that in the bush,â Webb says.
Her practice hosts UQ vet students who provide greatly appreciated assistance in the workplace, while gaining valuable experience. âOccasionally I will ask the odd one whether they would consider coming back to work here. Mostly, they already have decided to become small-animal vets and want to work in the cities where thereâs better pay and hours. They donât have to do rostered after-hours as emergency after-hours centres are available in bigger centres, so they know there wonât be clients ringing at 2am.â
The large-animal âbrain drainâ is exacerbated by the fact that vets in small-animal-only practices donât get to hone their large-animal skills, âwhich means thereâs only a small pool of experienced vets with that skill setâ, Eagleton says.
âItâs tricky,â he admits. âDo large-animal practices need to offer more incentives? Probably, yes.â
The bottom line
Those who can offer financial sweeteners. âMany rural practices pay higher wages as an incentive to attract employees,â says AVAâs Dr Neutze. âUnfortunately, unlike doctors and dentists, vets have no health-department incentives to help.â
Larger practices may offer incentives such as half the call-out fee for after-hours jobs, Webb notes, but sole practitioners may not be able to afford to pay more than award, which is the usual hourly rate plus an on-call hourly fee.
Equine practices may be better placed to attract and retain vets: equine is a popular large-animal specialisation. However, factors beyond practice ownersâ control can undercut profits.
âThe Hendra virus issue, whereby vaccination rates are low, has impacted our bottom line. Treating sick horses and doing dentals has become more complicated biosecurity-wise, and owners ring around looking for a veterinarian who they hope will treat without testing or requiring HeV vaccination. This is disappointing, as horses are one of my special interests,â Webb says. âSmall animalsâ70 per cent of our workâactually keep the practice profitable and have always done so.â
On the upside, pig and cattle prices are up, and cattle call-outs are increasing, she notes. âWith beef prices so high, theyâre getting us back more often to do pregnancy testing, bull semen testing, examinations and calvings. Iâm even seeing sick calves again. With prices so low for the last 20 years, graziers have been reluctant to call me out for a calf valued at $20 or so.â
A solution may be to set up regionally-based veterinary courses focused on agricultural and large-animal work. The Veterinary and Animal Sciences School at NSWâs Charles Sturt University is a pioneer in this regard.
Since 2005, its School of Veterinary and Animal Sciences has been actively recruiting students with a demonstrated interest in working with large and production animals, with preference given to applicants from rural and farming backgrounds.
âGraduates whoâve grown up in rural environments tend to adapt to the lifestyle more readily.ââProfessor Glenn Edwards, School of Veterinary and Animal Science, Charles Sturt University
According to Glenn Edwards, Professor of Veterinary Surgery and hwead of CSUâs School of Veterinary and Animal Science, the idea began with a 2003 review by Peter Frawley, commissioned to address Australiaâs future animal-health needs and the roles, availability and capabilities of rural veterinarians to meet them. The review identified that ârural veterinarians have to contend with rising costs, a reluctance of producers to utilise their services, long hours, limited social opportunities and schooling for their familiesâ………