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For the health of animals and people, expand WSU veterinary school 

February 2, 2024

The following is a reprint of an Op Ed from WSVMA Board Members Dr. Eddie Haigh and Dr. Irene Yen which was published in The Seattle Times on January 29, 2024. You can find the original article, here

It’s been 20 years since Washington State University’s internationally recognized College of Veterinary Medicine has added more in-state students.

That’s two decades of rapid growth across our state, both in our human and animal populations.  A severe workforce shortage in veterinary medicine is diminishing our ability to respond to a wide range of worries.  Rural and urban parts of Washington alike are experiencing its impact:  Not enough veterinarians and technicians are being trained to care for either our companion animals or the farm animals so important to our farms and food supply.

Get a group of vets together and they’ll tell you one of their darkest fears is that the next pandemic breaks out when an undiagnosed shelter dog passes a virus to their new best human friend.

Washington state must train more veterinarians.

As veterinarians practicing in our state today, we believe there’s a practical way forward:  Give WSU-CVM resources to grow.  Our organization, the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association, is working with state lawmakers and others to increase class sizes at WSU-CVM.  Budget writers can fill this troubling gap.

The slots can be filled with in-state students, an association priority.  Costs are straightforward:  $1.25 million for the 20 additional students per class per year; over four years, the price is approximately $5 million.  Weigh the costs of additional degrees against the potential price of bird flu or mad-cow disease outbreaks.  The shortage is an ongoing threat to animal health and the well-being of veterinarians themselves.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified numerous locations throughout Washington where veterinarians are in short supply, from rural communities in Adams, Garfield and Pend Oreille counties, to the Puget Sound region’s urban cities and towns, to tribal nations.

Our two practices differ. One of us works in Shelton, and the other covers veterinary hospital scheduling shortages (sick, vacation, maternity leave) in endless Seattle traffic. We face the same issues:  Retaining highly qualified employees, long hours, advocating for a diverse workforce.  Our profession is stretched thin these days.

The Seattle Times this month published a story in Pacific NW magazine about WSU-CVM’s teaching hospital. There’s more to this story. It centers on the demand for veterinary education in Washington state.  At WSU-CVM the application pool for veterinary medicine is at an all-time high. The college receives as many as 200 applications from Washingtonians out of 2,000 total each year. This means that a local applicant has less than a 10% chance of getting into vet school.  Washington students are more likely to stay here, at home, after graduation.

Why is WSU-CVM so popular? We’d point to at least three reasons that always seem to come up when we are working with WSU-CVM students: First, the veterinary school offers a curriculum with an emphasis on all animal species.  Second, students come from a mix of rural and urban areas.  And finally, WSU-CVM’s admission process reviews background, goals, letters of recommendation and work history.

The school is an underused asset.  We’ve seen the caliber of graduates it sends into our state and the world.

The veterinarian association is asking our state budget writers to add 20 more students a year to the school.  Balance the cost of those newly minted veterinarians against the cost of a future outbreak.

Eddie Haigh is president of the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association and leads a practice in Shelton.

Irene Yen is a Washington State Veterinary Medical Association director and a small-animal relief veterinarian in Western Washington.

Dr. Jessica Bunch, head of Integrative Medicine and Rehabilitation Service at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, helps Zelda, a French bulldog, walk on an underwater treadmill during a treatment session in Pullman on Nov. 9. (Ted S. Warren / College of Veterinary Medicine)