State And Universities Try To Address Demand For Large Animal Vets In Rural Arizona

By Casey Kuhn
Published: Thursday, July 13, 2017 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, July 13, 2017 - 9:37am

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(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Candice Chintis watches a horse trot to see if it has any hoof problems.

Arizona has hundreds of thousands of cattle and dairy cows, and only a handful of veterinarians to tend to the herds. Most vet students come out of school saddled with huge student loan debt and go into lucrative family pet practices. Now, the state and local schools are trying to get more vets into the rural areas that need them most.

When equine veterinarian Candice Chintis got a call at 8 p.m. that a horse was badly wounded after getting spooked by fireworks around the Fourth of July, she didn’t hesitate to drive 40 minutes to help.

“He was starting to get a little panicky and his gum color was pretty bad,” Chintis said, “so we ended up having to do kind of an emergency tracheotomy right there in the field.”

The horse had a deep puncture wound near his neck that made it hard to breathe.

“Five minutes later he’s standing there breathing and relaxed and all of a sudden everything’s OK again in his world,” Chintis said.

She was back on the ranch north of Marana for a check-up.

The horse can breathe through his tracheotomy, and eat with no problems, which Chintis said is a great sign.

(Photo by Casey Kuhn - KJZZ)
Candice Chintis checks on a horse that had a puncture wound near its neck.

“He’s got a little bit of a road ahead of him, but I’m pretty optimistic,” she said to the horse's owner.

Late-night calls, emergency surgeries and remote patients — that’s the kind of chaos Chintis said comes with the job of being a large animal vet.

“The job in general I mean it’s tough," she said. "It’s long, often unpredictable hours, a lot of driving.”

Chintis graduated from vet school last May before starting a private practice in Avra Valley. She had to go out of state because Arizona’s only vet school opened just a few years ago — and that left her more than $300,000 in debt.

“I have kids, I have a husband, I had to pay out-of-state tuition,” Chintis said. “It’s stressful.”

Huge Debt Pushes Vet Students To Small Animal Practice

Vet students typically graduate with a large amount of debt and find lucrative work treating pets. Taking care of animals that end up on a plate, like cows and pigs, is a tougher sell.

“The return on their investment to go into food-animal medicine is not very great," said state veterinarian Dr. Peter Mundschenk. "A lot of them have shifted more toward the small-animal and equine side of practices.”

Mundschenk said there’s a shortage of food-animal vets in rural Arizona. New grads don’t want to move to areas where they have to cover huge stretches of land to get from feedlot to feedlot and check up on herds. That, Mundschenk said, can lead to feed animals that are sicker longer and that produce less.

The Arizona Department of Agriculture partnered with Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona’s only vet school, to help in testing cattle animals with a program called Arizona Livestock Incident Response Time (ALIRT). ALIRT originated in a partnership between University of Arizona and the state, providing emergency testing and diagnosis in the case of a large die-off in herds. 

“So just like there are food deserts, I consider vast areas of the state of Arizona to be veterinary deserts,” said Tom Graves, dean of Midwestern University's School of Veterinary Medicine. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a program to entice vets to do more feed animal practice by offering student loan forgiveness if they work in these shortage areas. There are several of these areas in rural counties like Cochise, Yuma and Navajo, but there’s also one in Maricopa County. Mundschenk said that's because development has changed West Valley land into places with homes and families instead of feedlots and dairies. That change brings more pets and fewer need for large animal vets.

Debt And Location Factor Into Vet Need

Graves said agriculture is consolidating to more cattle in fewer places, spread farther apart.

“Veterinary medicine is changing just like agriculture is changing," Graves said. "Veterinary medicine is consolidating too. It’s not all the small veterinary practice on the corner like it used to be.”

UA leadership believes they could have a solution to lessen student debt by offering a veterinary school that would graduate students in only three years.

University of Arizona farm
(Photo courtesy of Douglas Carroll - University of Arizona)
The University of Arizona farm on Campbell Avenue in Tucson.

UA provost Andrew Comrie said the goal is to keep students in-state once they graduate.

“We have lots of the building blocks in place already and with an innovative new curriculum we thought this would be a really smart thing to do,” Comrie said.

UA’s first run at accreditation was rejected last year. Now, the school is restarting the process and hopes to be approved in the spring of 2019.

“We want to be sure that we can do that but do it in a way that really substantially lowers the costs for students, particularly for Arizonans to attend here,” Comrie said.

Marana vet Candice Chintis came back to Arizona to practice because it’s what she loves to do, though the debt won’t go away anytime soon.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat, but it’s definitely a little big black cloud following you around everywhere,” Chintis said.

Chintis couldn’t take advantage of the USDA loan forgiveness program because she didn’t want to leave her family again. And it may take more than that program to lure large animal vets like her to the rural areas that need them most.

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