Montana's veterinarian shortage
Bozeman program trains people who care for our livestock, pets
The on-call vet at a local practice recommended that London bring her horse into town for an exam, and when London and DJ arrived in Corvallis the next day, the horse was cared for by veterinarian Dr. Anne Hutton. Originally from Wisdom, Montana, Hutton (shown above in photo, on right) is a graduate of the first class of the WIMU Regional Program in Veterinary Medicine, of which Montana State University is a partner. WIMU enrolls students from Washington, Idaho, Montana and Utah.
Hutton said she believed DJ had something more serious than colic and eventually discovered that the horse had a uterine torsion — a twist in the uterus — and that the fetus had an elevated heart rate.
“There are typically two types of treatment — a non-surgical or surgical option,” Hutton explained.
With either approach, outcomes of a uterine torsion are most often grim for the fetus, she added. The highest concern is the twist cutting off the blood supply to the fetus. “It’s high risk because (the fetus will) go with reduced blood supply until it’s fixed,” she said.
Hutton and the team at the clinic set out to correct the uterine torsion. They anesthetized the horse, laid her on her side and then rolled her while trying to stabilize the uterus to correct the torsion, Hutton said. Fortunately, after four rolls, the uterus was back to normal. Two months later, DJ gave birth to Annie, a filly named after Hutton.
In this instance, the happy ending was due to London’s ability to access a veterinarian, but in many Montana communities, it is still difficult to obtain professional help without delays due to lack of availability and significant distances to travel.
“The lack of rural veterinarians is felt pretty hard by the everyday producer,” Hutton said. “Growing up in Wisdom, Montana, our closest vet was an hour or an hour and a half away, either in Dillon or here in Corvallis. It’s a trek to get to the vet if we had an injured animal.”
Montana needs more veterinarians in the state, particularly in rural areas, according to Mark Quinn, director of the Montana WIMU regional program.
“Veterinarians are an essential part of rural communities and the agriculture industry in Montana,” Quinn said. “They are a valuable resource for food production systems, preventive care and treatment of ill animals. Without them, who would treat livestock and pets?”
The problem may become more acute. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 500 counties across 46 states have reported critical shortages of veterinarians in the last year, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an average of about 4,800 openings for veterinarians annually over the next decade as existing vets transfer to different occupations or retire.
Each year, 10 students from Montana complete their first year of veterinary study through the WIMU program at MSU in Bozeman. They then transfer to WSU in Pullman, Washington, for three years of academic coursework and regional clinical rotations. WIMU is modeled after the successful WWAMI Medical Education Program, which has provided medical training for Montana students for 50 years. The WWAMI program enrolls students from Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho at the University of Washington Medical School.
At MSU, first-year WIMU students learn basic animal anatomy, immunology, neurology, nutrition, physiology, surgery fundamentals and animal handling. Over the course of the program, students are prepared for all facets of the profession, including caring for pets, horses or livestock. They are readied to engage in private practice, industry or academia, and the program prepares graduates to enter any dimension of veterinary medicine.
The small class size during the first year of training at MSU provides advantages to students when it comes to hands-on coursework and training, said Dr. Alan Goldhahn, a veterinarian who teaches in the WIMU program.
“We can smother them with attention, and they get more instructor-student contact time,” he said.
For example, the 2022–23 group of WIMU students worked with bison at a nearby ranch and worked with birds of prey at the Montana Raptor Conservation Center.
“They get a lot of exposure to stuff that they never would get at a large university,” Goldhahn said. “The hands-on experience and exposure to different elements is huge for their success.”
Dr. Lane Schmitt, a large and small animal veterinarian in Chinook who graduated from WIMU in 2018, said he appreciated the hands-on experiences and one-on-one training with instructors during his first year in the program at MSU.
“It’s a great opportunity with hands-on opportunities in a small class size that you’re just not able to have at Washington State or Colorado State based on sheer numbers,” Schmitt said. He grew up on a cattle operation just outside Chinook and said he always knew he wanted to become a veterinarian.
Quinn said first-year WIMU students also travel throughout Gallatin County, and in summer months, they can seek work or internships in Montana veterinary practices. They can also return to Montana practices for clinical rotations, which are required in their final year at WSU.
Hutton said that the exposure to vets in the Gallatin Valley prepared her not only for her next three years of veterinary school but also for returning to practice in the state.
“It nice to have local vets’ guidance — tap into their knowledge to ask them questions about their practice,” she said. “For those of us (who) want to come back to rural Montana and practice, having the perspective of local vets added a level of experience I don’t think other programs have.”
Goldhahn said the students who come from Bozeman and go to Pullman “have not missed a beat. They feel like they’re ahead of the curve when they get there.”
Quinn noted that in addition to addressing the need for more rural veterinarians in the state, WIMU allows students to keep their tuition costs lower by qualifying for Montana resident tuition rates for the first year and Washington resident tuition rates for the second, third and fourth years. Students also are eligible for additional scholarships.
“Our goal is to have veterinarians return and serve rural Montana,” he said. “The best way to do that is to provide a good education and reduce the cost involved (with becoming a veterinarian).”
Veterinarians provide a range of important services beyond caring for animals, Schmitt added, including verifying meat safety for local producers and serving as the first line of defense for foreign animal diseases or outbreaks.
“We’re very important in helping with the production of the animals in the area and disease prevention and disease diagnosis and control,” he said. “The first person to see the first case of something is going to be a rural veterinarian on the ground at the producer’s place looking at the animals.”
Today, 90% of the first class of WIMU at MSU graduates have come back to work in Montana, mostly in rural counties. The majority of each WIMU class returns to Montana each year, Goldhahn noted. From 2018 to 2021, more than 35 students have graduated, and about 75% have returned to the state.
“At the end of the day, we work the long hours and travel the long distances because (of) the animals and their people,” Hutton said. “It’s the relationships we build in our community that keep us a little warmer and keep us coming back (to work in rural communities).”
— This story was published with permission from MSU's Mountains and Minds magazine.