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Last updated January 1, 2014

Women Soon to be Majority of Veterinarians

Yilu Zhao, New York Times, June 9. 2002


NORTH GRAFTON, Mass. — Veterinary medicine used to be a man's world. The veterinarian yanked calves from their mothers' wombs, wrestled with horses to give them shots and dressed the wounds of dogs, cats and the occasional canary.

Now most students at veterinary schools are women, and by 2005, women will become the majority in the profession, says the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Of the 77 new doctors of veterinary medicine from Tufts University, 62 are women. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, 75 percent of this year's veterinary graduates are women, as are 81 percent of those at the University of California at Davis.

While the number of female veterinarians in the United States has more than doubled since 1991, to 24,356, the number of male veterinarians has fallen 15 percent, to 33,461, reports the Employment Policy Foundation, which analyzes data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This trend will continue because nearly three-quarters of the nation's 9,276 veterinarian students are women. Since the late 1990's more than 70 percent of applicants to veterinary schools have been women. By contrast, in the late 1960's, about 5 percent of veterinary students were women.

Although women have made great strides in other professions, like law and medicine, where they make up about half of the students, the rapid increase in the number of women in veterinary medicine, a profession once almost exclusively male, is striking.

Many veterinary students and veterinarians say the change has occurred because veterinary salaries are not competitive with those of other medical professions.

"Vets are people with medical degrees without the medical income," said Stephanie Wong, a veterinary epidemiologist for the Navy in San Diego, who finished her training in 1999. "Many men balk at the idea of going to veterinary school if they want to be the primary income provider."

As recently as the 1970's, the income of veterinarians was right behind that of physicians. But veterinarians now average $70,000 to $80,000 a year, veterinary groups report, while physicians can easily earn $150,000 a year. Both professions require demanding preliminary courses and four years of doctoral studies. Increasingly, many graduates work as interns and residents, just as physicians do.

"Women in general choose careers different from men," said Wendy Emerson, the owner of Putnam Veterinary Clinic in Topsfield, Mass., and a former president of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association. "Women choose a career they feel passionate about. Men love animals, but they feel the obligation to support a family."

Deborah Nord, director of Princeton's program in the study of women and sexual differences, said: "The expectation today is that if the men do not provide the full household income, they should at least provide the major part of it. A lot of men also do not expect their wives to earn full salaries in their child-bearing years."

Jon Epstein, a new veterinarian from Tufts, said that he had wanted to be a veterinarian since high school but that his grandparents questioned his choice every time he visited them at Christmas.

" `Are you sure you really want to be a horse doctor?' they would ask me," Dr. Epstein said. " `Don't you want to be a real doctor?' "

Dr. Epstein, not very interested in human medicine, followed his passion and finally won over his family. Despite his avid interest in wild animals — wildlife television programs riveted him as a child — Dr. Epstein, 27, bypassed lower paid segments of the profession like zoo medicine. Instead, he accepted an internship in pet care.

"My parents had a real concern to have their child live comfortably and be able to raise a family," he said. "I grew up with a sense of responsibility that I not only want to earn a good living for myself, but I also want to earn a good living for my family when I do have one."

One thing that attracts women to veterinary medicine is flexibility in scheduling. Part-time physicians are rare, but part-time veterinarians are not uncommon.

"Some women practice veterinary medicine part time while raising a family," Ms. Emerson said. "They get the satisfaction out of their jobs without sacrificing their personal lives."

Why women are becoming the majority of veterinarians may not be entirely clear, but the consequences may be significant, some older veterinarians say.

Because women are less inclined to choose farm practices, said Lawrence E. Heider, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, there might eventually be a shortage of veterinarians for cattle, hogs and poultry.

As commercial farming replaces family farms across the nation, however, veterinarians more often leave routines of farm practice, like administering shots, to assistants. As a result, fewer farm veterinarians are needed.

"It used to be that 100 percent of the veterinarians' business was treating farm animals," said James H. Brandt, the president of American Veterinary Medical Association, who entered the profession in the 1960's. "They treated the dogs and cats on the side. Now pets are treated as members of the families, and veterinary medicine is not the physical profession it once was."

Dr. Heider said that 65 percent to 70 percent of veterinarians' earnings in this country last year came from treating pets and that spending on pet care rose to $11.1 billion, from $6.9 billion in 1991.

Veterinarians, unlike physicians, usually are not paid by insurance companies, do not charge as much and cannot count on as many people willing to pay for their services.

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