Top | Sift

The veterinarian is out

(article, Kim Carlson)

Cows are in more trouble than we think.

It's bad enough that, as Michael Pollan pointed out in The Omnivore's Dilemma, many of them are being made to eat corn when they've evolved to eat grass. And that, as the February issue of Gourmet noted, the number of dairy cows in the U.S. has dropped from 12 million to 9 million since 1970, while those reduced herds are being forced to produce twice as much milk as before.

Now the New York Times informs us that when our cows get sick, there are fewer “food-animal” veterinarians to treat them. As a result, ranchers are having to shoot their sick or suffering animals rather than get help for them.

For those of us who grew up thinking that James Herriot was a hero, this news comes as a blow.

The Times article profiles a Maine veterinarian who’s stretched thin by the many animals who need her attention. She’s the only “cow doctor” for miles around — 1,300 square miles, in fact. 

According to the Times, there are many reasons for this downward trend in large-animal vets, but it’s partly due to the bottom line. A cesarean section on a cow earns a vet $50, while the same procedure on a Chihuahua earns her $300. With student debt a factor of life for many young vets, the choice to specialize in dogs and cats is easy. 

People who raise cattle are distressed by this trend, but what about the rest of us? Will it have an effect? 

You bet, suggests the president of a national veterinary association.

"'We look at it as a crisis,' said Dr. Roger Mahr . . . who cited serious consequences not only for the well-being of farmers and animals, but also potentially for food safety and the impact of non-native diseases like bird flu. 'Of all the emerging diseases in people in the last 25 years, 75 percent of those were transmitted from animals,' Dr. Mahr said. 'Veterinarians are the ones to identify those diseases in animals first.'"