It may have taken a pandemic to shed light on the importance of veterinary medicine.

As more people worked from home or otherwise left the workforce as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, there was an explosion in the adoption of companion animals. One national poll indicates that among 5,000 households surveyed, nearly 20% acquired a cat or dog since the start of the pandemic and the vast majority of them plan to keep them.

The adoptions resulted in growing demand for veterinary care, said Ken White, dean of Utah State University’s College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences.

Between Utah’s growing human population and those who “found great solace in having a pet and a companion, the amount of veterinary work for the state of Utah has just gone through the roof,” he said.

To better meet demands for care and enhance educational opportunities in the state, Utah State University is proposing to pivot from a collaboration with Washington State University to educate doctors of veterinary medicine to establishing its own college of veterinary medicine.

Plans envision cohorts of 80 students over time, compared to 30 in the university’s existing partnership with Washington State in which students complete two years of foundational study at the Logan-based school and complete the final two years in Pullman, Washington. Among the 30 students who receive half of their training at USU, 20 are Utah students.

“Utah is ranked 42nd out of 50 in the number of veterinarians per capita population. So certainly we’re not keeping up with the demand with the 20 Utah students we’re graduating right now. So I think there’s a lot of room and a lot of agreement that we need additional trained veterinary medicine doctors,” said White, who also is vice president of USU Extension.

USU President Noelle Cockett, in a presentation to the Utah Board of Higher Education on Friday, said more veterinarians are needed in research fields as well.

“For instance, we have the Institute for Antiviral Research that’s currently working on treatments and vaccines for COVID as well as other viruses. They use laboratory animals as models for human pathogens, primarily because that’s where many of our human pathogens originate,” she said.

According to the National Institutes of Health, among human pathogens, 61% originate in animals. “That’s the case for the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic, brucellosis, Lyme disease and rabies,” USU documents state.

Cockett said the workforce also needs veterinarians to staff clinics in big box pet stores and animal rescues and to perform regulatory functions such as meat grading for the U.S. Department of Agriculture “so there’s a tremendous need right now for additional production of veterinarians with a doctorate of veterinary medicine degree.”

Tawney Barfuss, a sophomore vet student at Utah State University, performs an ultrasound on a pregnant goat at the Animal Science Farm in Logan on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

What’s the cost and timeline for vet school at USU?

The launch of a veterinary college at Utah State would be at least two years away, according to a proposed timeline presented to the higher education board. The first cohort would graduate in 2028. In the meantime, Utah students would continue to participate in the 2+2 program with Washington State.

Plans envision construction of veterinary sciences and clinical buildings to be completed by 2025, which would cost approximately $80 million. Rather than constructing a veterinary hospital, students’ clinical training would occur in existing medical practices and animal facilities in Utah. The training would be supervised by veterinary medicine professionals, who would be considered USU faculty.

Currently, Washington State receives $1.7 million in state funding from Utah to cover the difference between in-state and nonresident tuition for the 20 Utah students. Approximately $340,000 of other funds go to WSU annually as students move through the program.

“A DVM-granting school at USU would retain that funding and bring an estimated $14.6 million to our state and local economies,” university documents state.

Cockett said USU officials estimate the needed annual state appropriations for the veterinary school would be about $20 million annually, which would be lower than the average of schools in seven other states, among them $49 million for Colorado State University in the 2020 funding year.

Under the proposal, the first cohort would likely be 40 students, building up to 80-student cohorts over time, White said.

The university will also begin the process of accreditation through the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Dr. Rusty Stott teaches his theriogenology lab students how to perform an ultrasound on a pregnant goat in the Animal Science Farm at Utah State University in Logan on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Veterinarians at risk

White said USU already has faculty that prepare students for the first two-years of their education under the 2+2 plan but would need to expand as it moves to a four-year program that eventually will have 320 students in attendance annually.

One significant support already in place are mental health and wellness services for current veterinary medicine students.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published in 2018 concluded that veterinarians in the United States are at an increased risk of death by suicide, a trend that has spanned more than three decades.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, showed that female veterinarians were 3.5 times as likely, and male veterinarians were 2.1 times as likely, to die from suicide as the general population. Most veterinarians who died by suicide worked in small animal practices and more than a third of the veterinarians died by pharmaceutical poisoning, the study found.

While the reasons people take their lives are complex, the study points to risk factors such as demands of veterinary practices, educational debt, poor work-life balance and access to euthanasia solution used for animals.

Vet school admission is highly selective and tends to attract many students with “type A” personalities, White said.

“They’re used to being top of their class and now they’re one of the 30 students that are all top of the class or very close and so there’s a lot of pressure. We felt like that direct access to counseling was an important piece of us maintaining a healthy student body in our school. Certainly, as we move forward here, we will expand those resources,” White said.

Counselors help students deal with stress and tend to their mental health. Students learn strategies to better cope with stressors and study so they can handle their workload and emotions “in a way that’s healthy and productive,” White said.

Pregnant goats get sorted into a pen before Dr. Rusty Stott and his theriogenology students perform ultrasounds on the pregnant goats in the Animal Science Farm at Utah State University in Logan on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

2+2 experience

White said USU’s partnership with Washington State, which started in 2012, has been “a great collaboration. I’ve appreciated the colleagues at WSU. They’ve been fantastic partners.”

Students who spent their first two years of the program at Utah State have fared well. Among the class of 2022, of 21 students on the dean’s list, 10 were from the USU cohort. Seven of the top 10 students were from the Utah program.

“One of the things that we didn’t realize was the credit for those graduates, those doctorates of veterinary medicine, actually goes to Washington. Utah is not getting any credit for those individuals,” Cockett said.

White said other factors weighed into the decision for USU to start its own four-year college. USU prepares 30 students who complete their degrees at Washington State and it has no control over tuition rates assessed students.

“We’ve experienced over 25% tuition increases in the 10 years we’ve been involved in that school. You know, it just, you know, allows us to chart our own course and make our own decisions,” he said.

Utah Board of Regents approves joint veterinarian program at USU
A pregnant goat is seen before getting an ultrasound in the Animal Science Farm at Utah State University in Logan on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Benefits to Utah

If the proposal comes to fruition, Utah would become the 26th state to have a veterinary medicine college, Cockett said.

“I want to point out another point of pride for Utah. We would now have the four big professional doctorate schools, medical, dental, law and veterinary medicine,” she said.

White said he believes establishing the veterinary college would spur more research collaborations between USU and the University of Utah.

“Certainly there’s a lot of synergy between the research that’s going on in medical schools and the same types of research that would be going on in a four-year veterinary medicine school. Faculty all are going to be going after NIH (National Institutes of Health) grants,” he said.

There will also be opportunities for study in the biomedical research field.

“I think it bodes well for the state from an economic standpoint and being able to attract even more businesses in that area because we’ll have graduates with high-demand expertise to be able to support those efforts,” White said.

Goats run into the Animal Science Farm at Utah State University before having ultrasounds in Logan on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News