The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

National and world

January 12, 2013

Oklahoma Panhandle needs veterinarians

— One client couldn't find a new veterinarian after she moved to the Oklahoma Panhandle, so she still drives back to Sapulpa to see Dr. Corinna Tressler.

Meanwhile, on her desk at the Green Country Veterinary Hospital, Tressler has a resume from a recent graduate who's working at a convenience store.

That's the irony of her profession right now - whole counties are going without service, while young veterinarians can't find work.

"It's simple economics," Tressler explained. "Vet school is just as expensive as medical school, but we can't charge $10,000 to spay a dog."

Universities are pumping out graduates faster than ever. But rural areas nationwide, including Oklahoma, are facing a chronic shortage of veterinarians, creating a problem for pet owners and animal producers.

"And what about those of us who are trying to plan for retirement someday?" Tressler wants to know.

"What are we supposed to do if nobody wants to take our position when we're gone?"

Nationally, the average veterinary school graduate owes about $135,000 in student loans, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some estimates put it closer to $150,000.

At Oklahoma State University, fourth-year veterinary student John von Kieckebusch will graduate this spring with $180,000 worth of debt.

And that's partly why he's looking for work in southern Florida, where the beginning salaries dwarf what he could expect in Oklahoma.

"It dictates what kind of job you can even think about taking," von Kieckebusch told the Tulsa World (http://is.gd/RNUPeK).

"I have friends who have graduated and have tried to stay in Oklahoma, and they couldn't even make the student loan payments."

Nonetheless, OSU is one of the more affordable options for veterinary students.

Out-of-state enrollment applications have more than doubled in recent years partly because the average OSU vet student will accumulate "only" $117,553 in debt.

"Students learn to shop around," said Dr. Chris Ross, associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

But the average debt still adds up to nearly four times the annual salary a new veterinarian could make in rural Oklahoma, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"With that kind of debt load coming out of vet school," Ross said, "it makes the decision pretty hard to go back home" to a small town.

"The money just isn't there," he said.

To alleviate the shortage, the USDA has started giving "loan repayment awards" worth about $98,000 each.

But the awards are highly competitive, with only 47 given last year nationwide, including three in Oklahoma.

In exchange, the recipients have to work at least three years in certain rural areas.

But officials hope they will stay much longer.

"Retention is the whole point, and it's the only way to solve the shortage in the long run," Ross said.

"We'll have to say it's a failure if they move away the day the loan is paid off."

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