Food Animal Veterinarians: The Past, Present & More Importantly, the Future
ACVIM 2008
George M. Barrington, DVM, PhD, DACVIM
Pullman, WA, USA


Prior to the establishment of the first US College of Veterinary Medicine in the late 1800's, formal training in veterinary science occurred primarily in Europe. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many professed animal doctors were better described as cow leeches, farriers and gelders, often with empirical and destructive remedies.1 As recently as 1900, less than 10% of those claiming to be a veterinarian actually received any formal training, leaving a predictable effect on the profession's early reputation.

By the dawn of the 20th century, the practice of veterinary medicine was concerned primarily with agricultural, transportation and draft animals. Most veterinary texts were devoted to the study of species directly affecting human necessities for food, fiber, labor and transportation. Less interest existed in the veterinary curricula regarding companion animals. In 1916, an editorial in Veterinary Medicine regarding the study of canine pathology indicated, "A lack of interest on the part of students,...", and that, "The average veterinary student...does not look upon canine practice as being worthwhile, and is not at present an enthusiastic supporter of this part of the veterinary college curriculum."2 With the advance of mechanized technology and the internal combustion engine, the utility and value or draft animals began to diminish. Many veterinarians opted to leave the profession based on the bleak economic outlook. Soon however, the value of horses and cattle rebounded in parallel with an increased market for beef and other domestic livestock products. Once again, the growth of animal agriculture helped secure a future for veterinary care.

By the 1930's, US and global economics as well as political climate resulted in decreased enrollments in veterinary colleges. Difficult times in rural environments found veterinarians migrating to cities along with other segments of the population simply to survive. Soon, animal hospitals designed to meet the needs of companion animals became more common. Concurrent with the shift of veterinarians to more densely populated areas, significant strides were initiated in the fields of modern medicine, including veterinary medicine. Vaccines were developed for many animal diseases including brucellosis, rabies and distempter, and antibiotic compounds such as sulfas and penicillins became readily available. The veterinary profession was well on its way to becoming a well-respected and dignified occupation which, in addition to caring for livestock, became involved in preventative medicine (Brucellosis and Tuberculosis eradication campaigns), human health concerns (safe milk and meat supply), and small animal practice.

As World War II subsided and the US economic recovery continued, modern medical science continued to expand. Veterinarians became established in lucrative urban settings caring for companion animals while other returned to more rural farming communities. Scientific discovery enhanced the knowledge and techniques available to both human and animal medicine, providing veterinarians with the tools necessary to provide high quality care for all animals.

By the mid 20th century, the influx of medical information and technology aided the advancement of both large and small animal medicine. Species specialization, and later discipline specialization, became more and more common in order to keep up with the growing amount of information. Multiple doctor practices became more common providing greater quality and quantity of care. Rural veterinarians could specialize in a particular livestock species, or remain mixed practitioners caring for 'all creatures great and small'. Along with veterinarian's ability to specialize, owners and producers came to expect that their animals would be provided high quality, state-of-the-art care.

Modern bovine practice essentially began in the 1950's in parallel with an increased national consumer demand for readily available, wholesome meat and milk. Practitioners working with food animal species provided high quality individual animal care. Common problems addressed by food animal veterinarians included pneumonia, calf diarrhea, mastitis, metritis, obstetrical procedures, milk fever, and the like. From the 50's through the 80's, significant progress was made in the understanding, discovery and prevention of many bovine diseases. Great strides were also made in the fields of bovine reproduction, nutrition, medicine, surgery, infectious disease control and vaccinology. Clinical capabilities were greatly improved with the development of improved laboratory diagnostic testing and the adoption of modalities such as ultrasound.

From the latter part of the 20th century onward, significant changes occurred in animal agriculture. Improved efficiency resulted in smaller profit margins per animal unit. As a result, small, traditional, family farms declined in number as they were less able to compete with the development of larger, more efficient, agribusinesses. Concurrent with the shift in farm demographics, food animal veterinary practices began to shift away from focusing on individual animals and more toward herd health and population medicine. From the 1970's onward, principals of herd health, disease investigation, and disease prevention were adopted in conjunction with modern bovine epidemiology. Software programs were developed for tracking important production data related to the dairy, cow/calf, and feedlot industries. The concept of 'production medicine', incorporating overall herd health, disease prevention, and optimized production was seen as a necessary component of food animal veterinary medicine, as well as veterinary education.


Notable changes in food animal agriculture and veterinary medicine continue into the 21st century. As society becomes more urbanized, the overall number of farms and ranches continues to drop while their size increases and production becomes more intensified. Mixed animal practitioners frequently exist in rural practices where the raising food animals is not typically a sole source of income for owners. Main stream beef and dairy industries are utilizing services of food animal specialists serving as herd health and production medicine consultants. While fewer and fewer members of society possess experience with the varied aspects of animal agriculture, we continue to reap benefits of an efficient industry that provides consumers with low cost, wholesome, and safe meat and milk products. The contributions of veterinary medicine in general, and food animal veterinarians in particular, should be recognized in this success story.

Paradoxically, the availability of inexpensive, wholesome animal-origin foods along with ready access to alternative food products, has empowered consumers (the majority of which lack knowledge concerning animal agriculture), with the ability to influence the production of meat and milk products. At the same time, current health concerns regarding consumption of animal products, and environmental concerns related to large production units, has fostered a jaundiced view of animal agriculture. Ostensibly, animal agriculture must now walk a fine line in order to provide consumers with low cost quality products in a manner consistent with societal expectations. Clearly, the role of veterinarians, as vanguards of animal health, well-being and a safe food supply must keep pace with the concerns and expectations of both animal producers and consumers.

Not surprisingly, changes in veterinary education have paralleled the demographic, social and economic changes in society. A majority of veterinary students now come from urban backgrounds and very few possess meaningful knowledge or experience with agricultural animals. Student interest is primarily directed towards companion animal practice and there is a concurrent decline in student interest regarding food animal practice (surveys reveal less than 15% desire a career in food animal practice).3 At the same time, veterinary education costs have skyrocketed leaving new graduates with large educational debts. Most new graduates now enter urban, companion animal practices based on perceptions of greater economic opportunity, more predictable work schedules, as well as an inherent lack of familiarity regarding agricultural animal practice.

The current shift of veterinary graduates toward companion animal practices and away from agricultural based practices has had a direct influence on veterinary school curricula. Currently, many veterinary colleges provide curricula centered on a generalist program with differing elective programs or "tracking" directed at a particular species or discipline. Reality suggests that because the core of many undergraduate programs is currently focused on companion animals, they risk failure in adequately preparing new graduates who are highly competent in bovine practice. At best, a generalist veterinary education is likely to provide a graduate with only the most basic needs of modern cattle producers. Many argue the need for defined tracking programs in veterinary colleges which can prepare new veterinarians to meet the broader needs of the industry.


The shortage of food animal veterinarians in practice, industry, government, education and research has been the subject of many recent news articles, academic reports, and legislative proposals. Substantive interest has been shown with regards to a lack of appropriately trained professionals who can address the needs and expectations of society as it relates to animal agriculture at the local, national and international levels. A great deal of attention appears to be bourn by the recognition that we may be poorly equipped to respond to major food animal disease outbreaks or bioterrorism threats. While we must be enthusiastic about this attention and concern, we must also realize that similar pronouncements have occurred in the past. One can argue that as a profession we can no longer afford to ignore the contributions veterinary medicine must be equipped to provide to the growing animal, human and environmental needs of society.

Acknowledging the thoughts of the late Dr. Otto Radostits, the future of bovine practice is likely to entail the following: the continued demand for safe and wholesome meat and milk and the sustained industrialization of animal agriculture; the increasing importance of the herd as the unit of concern regarding health and production (versus the individual); attention to animal well-being and the environment; utilization of modern technologies and information; and new strategies to ensure and improve the education of new bovine practitioners.4

Meeting the demands of society for safe and wholesome animal products encompasses numerous aspects of food animal veterinary medicine. Obviously, maintaining the overall health and productivity of herds will serve as the foundation. This in turn will entail control, prevention, and management of infectious and non-infectious diseases, expertise regarding nutrition and feeding systems, housing and environments, optimization of reproductive performance, prevention of zoonotic diseases, avoidance of chemical residues, serving as advocates for animal well-being, and preparation for the control and prevention of emerging and foreign animal diseases.

As bovine practitioners expand their services in herd health and production management, less attention will be concentrated on individual animal care aside from the training of producers, their workers or technicians. Compensation will therefore have to shift from a fee-for-service approach to a consultation-oriented service focused on, and tied to, the financial performance of the enterprise.

A significant responsibility of food animal veterinarians is to advise and encourage livestock producers regarding standards of animal well-being that comply with laws and interests of society. Similarly, it is imperative that veterinarians be versed in environmental issues relating to animal agriculture. Without doubt, the intensified conditions under which modern food animals are raised has become of a main thrust of animal welfare and environmental concerns. Accordingly, modern food animal practitioners must not only be informed in these areas, but act proactively to establish and maintain sound practices relating to animal well-being and the environment.

Continued advances in information technology will continue to have an important impact on advances in food animal veterinary medicine. Computer programs for diary, cow/calf, and feedlot health and production management will continue to improve and become more powerful. Information available on the World Wide Web and internet will continue to expand and provide access to veterinary literature and state-of-the-art information. Digital visual imaging will become faster, more convenient, and less expensive. Methods for individual animal identification and tracking will aid in the control of infectious diseases and implementation of biosecurity measures.

Arguably, there has been a steady and prolonged erosion of food animal veterinary education compared to companion animal education such that the latter dominates the educational decision making process in veterinary colleges. In many institutions, a cycle has developed where veterinary students are primarily exposed to "patient-centric" veterinary medicine which follows the human physician model.5 Exposure to food animal practice and the advantages of living in rural communities is typically not part of this paradigm. It is clear that leadership within the profession and academia must recognize this fact and adjust accordingly if we are to meet the needs of society. Substantive efforts directed at mentorship, student recruitment and targeted admissions would be a place to start. Support of current and future state and federal legislative efforts is also necessary. In a 2004 editorial, Chenoweth mentions that several "truisms" relating to food animal veterinarians need to be challenged.5 Notably, that food animal practice is not dead; rural animal practice can be an attractive career choice; food animal services are of national concern; student selection processes can favor food animal-oriented applicants; and economics need not be the sole motivation for new graduates.

The history of veterinary medicine has been one of growth and adaptation to the needs of society. Today, the discipline relating to food animals is being challenged by various forces ranging from projected shortages of qualified personnel, to economic challenges, to deficiencies in training future graduates. Despite these challenges, food animal veterinarians have tremendous opportunities to combine current interest and attention with a well-planned vision to shape the profession and ensure our relevance and contributions to society. We should not miss this opportunity.


1.  Kingrey BW. Farm animal practice in the United States. JAVMA. 1976;169(1), 56-60.

2.  Smithcors JF. The American veterinary profession: Its background and development. Iowa State University Press, Ames, IA. 1963. 526.

3.  Food Animal Veterinarians: An endangered species? Are too few veterinary graduates choosing food animal practice? What is the problem? Kansas State University, College of Veterinary Medicine Continuing Education. Manhattan, KS. October 25-26, 2002.

4.  Radostits OM. Bovine Practice: Successes of the Past and Challenges and Opportunities in the Future. 23rd World Buiatrics Congress, Quebec City, Canada 2004.

5.  Chenoweth PJ. Editorial: Food animal veterinary futures. JVME. 2004;31(4)323-328.

Speaker Information
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George Barrington, DVM, PhD, DACVIM
Washington State University
Pullman, WA

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