MOUNDSVILLE -- Meghan Marsh would love nothing more than to become a large animal veterinarian after she applies to veterinary school this fall, although she knows the hard work that goes into the task of caring for livestock.
"I just love livestock animals, so if I could be a vet for them solely, I would love it," Marsh, a student at Marshall University and resident of Cameron, said. "It requires a lot, though. You couldn't just drive to the vet's office (with large animals), the vet has to come to you. In rural areas, some farmers don't have the means to travel, so they need someone to go out and do it."
If Marsh realizes her dream of being a livestock veterinarian, she would be one of the few veterinary students in the country graduating with the intention of treating large animals full time -- a trend that has generated a great need for more such specialists in West Virginia and other rural parts of the country.
According to the most recent 2010 report from the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, there are an estimated 150 large animal veterinarians in the state. Most are equine-only practices, leaving beef cattle, dairy cow, swine, goat and other livestock farmers little choice for emergency vet care.
"If our vet goes on vacation, then there is no other person to call," said Jeff Allen, who owns a beef cattle farm in Marshall County. "Basically in our area, our vet is the only one we have."
The 2013 American Veterinary Medical Association work force report suggests the issue isn't a shortage of livestock vets, but rather a problem of distribution where there are many underserved rural areas in need of large animal veterinary care. Also at 17 percent of the work force, the percentage of large animal vets still falls behind small animal and equine practices.
The day-to-day work of a large animal veterinarian seems to be a big factor that prevents graduates from entering the practice. Large animal vets often are on-call at any hour, and they cover a wide area. They can be called in the middle of the night to travel long country roads to rural farms, sometimes in the snow or rain.
Dr. Alison Bertram, a veterinarian at Town and Country Animal Hospital in Bethlehem, said she had a strong interest in livestock and worked with large animals briefly after she graduated veterinary school. But she found the demands of that work interfered with time spent with her family. Bertram now works almost exclusively with small animals, though she still helps out with animal health checks at the Marshall County Fair.
"If you are going to run a mixed animal practice, you have to have an emergency service. I think that is one of the biggest reasons that turns people away," Bertram said. "In Marshall County, there's pretty much one large animal vet, and for one person to be on call for any potential emergency seven days a week -- nobody wants that. I think that's the biggest thing really, is the time, which would be OK if there were enough vets around to split it up."
Mark Fitzsimmons, who owns a beef cattle farm in Marshall County, believes the shortage could be due to fewer people growing up on farms with big animals who know that kind of lifestyle. He also suggested days spent mostly on the road might keep most vet students from serving large animals exclusively.
"That's the problem. If you call the vet, he may have just driven from West Liberty to come to Cameron," Fitzsimmons said. "He may have just been on the road for an hour or more. You have to have a vet who is dedicated to big animals, but there aren't very many."
Fitzsimmons said the shortage is especially a problem if there is an emergency, such as a cow having trouble birthing.
"Last time I called the vet, he came about four hours later, saying 'as soon as he could get there,'" Fitzsimmons said. "He was at some other farm. It takes a certain individual willing to work any hour of the day. The ones that are large animal veterinarians do it because they love it."