Labor shortage prompts AAEP to form workforce commission

The American Association of Equine Practitioners in July announced the formation of a commission tasked with developing strategies for recruiting and retaining veterinarians in equine practice.

Many areas of the United States already are experiencing a shortage of equine veterinarians, which the association warned may jeopardize the health and welfare of horses and other equids if corrective actions aren’t taken.

Dr. Emma Read, president of the AAEP, described the shortage of equine practitioners as a crisis decades in the making, with the number of equine veterinarians shrinking for some 20 years.

Veterinarian taking care of a horse's injured leg

According to AAEP data, an estimated 1.3% of veterinary graduates enter equine practice directly each year, and another 4.5% pursue further training in equine internship positions, said Dr. Read, associate dean for professional programs at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Within five years, however, 50% of these veterinarians leave equine medicine for small animal practice or quit veterinary medicine altogether.

The AAEP attributes the exodus from equine practice primarily to work-related burnout and lower starting salaries, compared with companion animal practice. According to the 2021 AVMA Report on the Economic State of the Veterinary Profession, companion animal–exclusive practice had the highest starting salary in the private sector, at $96,824, compared with equine practice having the lowest, at $58,621. Further, the mean debt of those graduating from veterinary school in 2020 was $157,146.

Lower starting salaries and higher debt loads in equine practice mean fewer veterinarians are replacing equine practitioners as they retire—yet another factor expected to contribute to the labor shortage.

“We’re at the point now where we have practices that can’t hire and internships that aren’t filled,” Dr. Read said, noting that fewer veterinary school graduates seem to want to work in equine practice. “The pipeline is running dry,” she said.

The AVMA’s 2021 economic report estimated that of the nation’s 118,624 veterinarians, 4.6% or about 5,500 worked in equine practice.

Underscoring the seriousness of the situation, the AAEP’s Commission on Equine Veterinary Sustainability is one of the organization’s largest initiatives, Dr. Read said.

Volunteer members of the AAEP will lead the commission, which will focus on five key areas: compensation, strategies for effective emergency coverage, practice culture, internships, and supporting the growth and development of the equine veterinary student.

The commission’s strategies will account for the needs of one- and two-doctor practices because approximately half of AAEP members operate practices of that size. Additionally, the group will work with horse owners and the equine industry to raise awareness about the demands on equine practitioners as well as garner input.

“We’re trying to find solutions, not just for these big multidoctor practices but also for that veterinarian who works alone and has a huge practice range to cover,” explained David Foley, AAEP executive director. “We need to figure out how to make that attractive to someone just coming out of school and wants that job.”