BARTOW, Fla. — Polk County is home to a couple thousand farms and ranches, which is why the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the region is facing a critical shortage of large-animal veterinarians. 

A report by the agency said vet practices across the county have all expressed concerns about burnout and work-life balance. Several veterinarians have retired or passed away in recent years, which has led to decreased availability.

What You Need To Know

  • Across the country, there is a shortage of veterinarians trained to treat large animals like horses, cows and pigs

  • This type of vet is crucial to not only keeping animals healthy, but also keeping our food supply safe

  • Polk County is facing a critical shortage of large-animal vets, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Dr. LuJean Waters, a veterinarian at Heartland Large Animal Services, is feeling the pinch. Lately, the job Waters loves has become overwhelming. 

“I’m starting to have to turn people away in the last six to eight months,” she said. “Then, you feel like a terrible person because you feel like you’ve let somebody down that has a sick or injured or critical animal. It starts to weigh very heavily on your heart.”

Veterinarians like Waters specialize in treating large animals, including cows, horses and pigs. These vets not only keep animals healthy, but also make sure our food supply is safe. 

The ongoing shortage is leaving Waters overloaded. She’s getting called in almost every night of the week now and travels as far as Hillsborough and Osceola County to provide service. 

“Since COVID and when we had a shortage of groceries, we saw such a huge influx of families starting their own farms and ranches to produce their own meat, dairy, milk, eggs, everything,” Waters explained. “Now it’s very hard for us to continually serve those areas.”

Waters said one of the key issues is recruitment and retention. She said more students are choosing to go into small animal care for more regular hours and better pay. But fewer students are entering the profession altogether because the cost of education and loans is often not paid off by starting salaries, Waters explained.

Hillsborough Community College is trying to ease the shortage by training up vet technicians to enter the industry. Vincent Centonze, director of the school’s veterinary tech program, said there needs to be an addition 40,000 vets in the profession by 2030 in order to meet the current demand for services. 

“A good veterinary technician is worth their weight in gold because they can do all of those functions in a clinic to help alleviate the workload on the veterinarians and free the veterinarians up to do their primary duties,” Centonze explained.

At the end of the day, Waters still finds peace being surrounded by animals on the farm as the sun sets. But she hopes change is around the corner that will make the job less taxing. 

“I could never see myself doing anything else in the world other than this,” Waters said. “I feel like it’s just in my blood for me to be here with them, but it just gets harder every day and the long hours and the sleepless nights and the time away from my family certainly is taking its toll.”