BARTOW, Fla. – According to data from the University of Florida, Polk County’s cattle industry contributes more than a billion dollars to the local economy every year. However, finding enough large animal veterinarians to help care for the animals hasn’t been easy.

Veterinarian Dr. LuJean Waters hasn’t had a day off since January.

“I’m fully booked for three to four weeks out, and on top of that fully booked schedule, I get emergency calls, multiple emergency calls every single day,” Dr. Waters said.

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She treats large animals like horses and cows, and in some cases, pigs and goats. It’s a major need in Polk County, where the cattle industry is a big business, contributing more than $1.2 billion to the local economy, according to data from UF. 

According to a new report from the USDA, the area is facing a critical shortage of large animal veterinarians with some practices reporting concerns about burnout and work-life balance.

“We have to do a better job of recruitment, but we also have to have better programs,” Dr. Water said. “School has got to be more obtainable and more affordable, because the student loan debt is so high and the interest rates for student loans are so high that they are not able to pay back their student loans and in a timely manner or ever in their careers.”

As Waters explained, pay for large animal veterinarians is typically significantly less than companion vets. Despite that, it still requires the same amount of school and often requires travel in rural areas, meaning sometimes you can only see a few animals a day.

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“Why don’t you raise your prices? The truth of the matter is this community is important,” Dr. Waters said.

Waters is a seventh generation Florida cattle rancher and worries hiking the fees will ultimately hurt the people and animals she considers family, but because of the high demand for the first time in 12 years, her business – Heartland Large Animal Services in Bartow – is having to turn people away.

It’s why she’s hoping the state or the USDA can come up with programs to help prospective students financially and assist rural vet practices in meeting critical needs.

“I’m within my own community that I grew up in, and I just don’t want to come into this community and not let anybody know how much I care about them and how much I care about the agriculture here and the people here,” Waters said.


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