The West has a veterinarian shortage. Can this new college bring animal health care to rural Utah?

Utah State University’s new College of Veterinary Medicine will officially launch in 2025 in the hopes of more animal health care providers for the West.

Logan • Jenna Gowans didn’t always dream of being a veterinarian, but caring for animals has almost always been in her family.

Gowans’ father and sister run a veterinary clinic in Tooele where she grew up. While attending Utah State University for her undergraduate degree, she said, “The running joke in my family was if I was going to get an animal science degree, then I might as well go to vet school.”

Gowans is now in her second year of veterinary school at Utah State, but instead of dedicating more time to her studies in Logan, she’ll soon have to move to Pullman, Washington, to finish her advanced degree.

That’s because Utah State doesn’t yet have a doctorate of veterinary medicine college — nor does any university in Utah. Instead, Utah State is a partner in a regional program that allows students to spend two years in Logan before finishing their degree at Washington State University and joining the workforce as veterinarians.

But soon, Utah State will have its own full-time veterinary school. USU and national veterinary leaders hope in the coming years, the new school will be an asset toward addressing a national — and local — shortage of animal health care providers.

Utah State’s new college

Dirk Vanderwall, the college’s interim dean and a professor, started at Utah State in 2012 when the regional program — called the Washington-Idaho-Montana-Utah Regional Program, or WIMU — began. Every year, a new cohort of 30 students, 20 Utah residents and 10 nonresidents, enter the four-year program and eventually graduate from Washington State.

In 2022, the Utah Legislature approved funding to create Utah State’s new College of Veterinary Medicine. Vanderwall, recently tapped to become the college’s first full-time dean starting July 1, said the creation of the new school is a significant achievement and the number of veterinary students will grow in the coming years.

“We will be able to increase our class size from its current 30 to 80 students in each class,” Vanderwall told The Salt Lake Tribune and Utah Public Radio. “We’re planning for 40 positions for Utah residents, 40 positions for nonresidents.”

But that increase won’t happen for a while. The college’s first four-year cohort will start in the fall of 2025 and will be limited to 40 students in its inaugural year. Vanderwall said the college will grow to 80 new students per year when its new facilities are built just south of the Logan campus.

In the meantime, there are gaps in veterinary care, like shortages in care for livestock, in rural parts of the country.

‘A perfect storm’ of veterinary shortages

The shortage of veterinarians isn’t new, but the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the lingering problems, according to Dr. Rena Carlson, an Idaho veterinarian and president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

“The pandemic kind of created a perfect storm in which we saw an increased demand for veterinary service,” Carlson said in an interview, “but we also saw veterinary practices become less efficient because we had to go curbside, we had to restrict staff, many staff members left due to COVID.”

The situation has since improved, Carlson said, but the shortages are still prevalent, mostly in rural parts of the county.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture tracks the shortages of veterinary services across the county, and the vast majority of states have at least one area with an identified shortage.

Utah’s shortages are in predominantly rural areas. Counties like Cache, Rich, Duchesne and Uintah counties are listed as areas that lack the appropriate number of private veterinarians that can care to animals that produce food products, according to the USDA.

Both Carlson and Gowans said recent veterinary school graduates can make more money in urban or suburban areas, which can disincentivize new graduates from working in rural communities.

Veterinary students also typically graduate with a large amount of debt. A 2023 study from the American Veterinary Medical Association found the average debt for 2022 graduates was $147,258 — which was a 6% decrease from 2020. The USDA and Utah both have programs to incentivize recent graduates to open rural practices, but the veterinary shortages remain.

For 2023-2024, in-state tuition through the WIMU program costs around $26,000 per year, while out-of-state students could pay between $50,000 and $62,000 per year. Gowans said the benefit of in-state tuition was a big reason she chose the WIMU program.

Tuition costs for Utah State’s new four-year program are expected to be similar to the cost of the current WIMU program, according to the university.

More veterinarians in the west

As of now, USU’s new college is still in the accreditation process, as the current WIMU program is accredited through Washington State. Vanderwall said the new college will be evaluated by the American Veterinary Medical Association during a visit later this year, and he’s confident the accreditation process will go smoothly.

When the college officially launches, it will be the eighth veterinary school in the western United States. The current closest school to Utah is Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

The increased number of veterinary school students and graduates will certainly help the state and regional shortages, Carlson said, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to fix the problem, especially with shortages in rural areas.

“The economics are incredibly complex, and so there’s no way for us to be able to just say, ‘This is a perfect fix,’” Carlson said. “So just adding more people does not necessarily mean they’re going to actually go to those particular segments of the profession.”

For now, Utah students like Gowans will continue to move north to finish their degrees. Though she’s only about halfway through the program, Gowans said she plans to move back to Tooele and work with her dad and sister in their practice after she graduates.

Even though Toole County isn’t listed in the USDA shortages, she said the workload of a rural veterinarian can be staggering, at least in her personal experience.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen my dad or my sister work less than probably a 60- to 80-hour week,” Gowans said.