Care Crisis

Large Animal Vet Shortage Overwhelming Polk County Providers


Large animal vets are crucial for the livestock industry and our food supply. Despite this, we’re facing an issue here in Polk County and the nation at large: a severe shortage of large animal vets.

Dr. LuJean Waters, a large animal vet with 12 years in the field, is outspoken about the issue. She owns and operates Heartland Large Animal Services in Bartow and has firsthand experience with the shortage we’re facing.

“Surprisingly enough, most people don’t realize that Florida is one of the biggest cattle-producing states. We have a very, very high population of food-producing animals such as cattle, as well as horses, goats, sheep, pigs, and more. So we have a high number of patients in the cattle world because we have a lot of ranches here in Polk County” she notes.

All of this means massive demand for large animal vet services in Polk County, without enough vets to meet it. This issue is especially acute right now, but it’s been brewing for some time.

“It’s continually been a problem, and it’s just getting worse and worse as the years go on,” Waters says. 

Waters is not the only large animal vet in the area who’s struggling. 

Dr. Katie Hennessy of Polk Equine, whose practice is based in Lake Wales but serves all of Polk County, is also feeling the effects of the shortage.

“The shortage is definitely evident in the number of phone calls and text messages I receive,” she says. 

Dr. Haley Ercoli, a former colleague of Waters who works with both large and small animals at Collins Veterinary Services in Plant City, agrees. 

Ercoli has two years working as a vet, and as soon as she entered her career, she was faced with the struggles of the large vet shortage.

“Right when I graduated, there were two large animal vets around here, but one passed and the other had to retire. So I got double-whammied. I came along and tried to take over as best as I could,” she explains, later adding, “Out of my friends from vet school, I’m the only one who went into large animal work. And when I tell them that I’m on call 24/7 for emergencies, some of my friends from school, they don’t understand how I do that or want to do that. But at the same time, there’s really no one else to do the work, and it’s not the animal’s fault. So when I can go, I get up and go.”

The shortage has also had a major impact for clients in the area, including Dani Horton, who runs Hope Equine Rescue in Winter Haven. 

“The large animal vet shortage is affecting all horse owners,” Horton says. “We manage around 50 horses and require constant veterinarian assistance. Having only one veterinarian who can do emergency calls for us is a challenge. Dr. Waters is amazing and does everything she can, but she has a life and family and needs a break. Thankfully, we are able to haul our horses to an emergency clinic, but that is over an hour away. Not every horse owner has that option. It is a horrible thing to have an emergency with your beloved horse and not be able to get veterinarian care. I do not know what the solution is, but we need more large animal veterinarians.”

Hennessy says the vet schools and the AAEP are doing their best to encourage new grads to pursue large animal medicine. 

“Hopefully their efforts will pay off, but in the meantime establishing a relationship with a large animal vet is critical before an emergency happens,” she reiterates. 

Waters has a few potential solutions for these issues in mind, such as normalizing hauling animals to the vet to reduce travel time and increase efficiency, and the potential for the government to subsidize student loans for vet students. But the most important solution will be recruiting new large animal vets. One potential angle for this is improving pay.

“If we could charge more, that would equate to better salaries, so we could hire more veterinarians and improve the hours that those veterinarians work because more students would be willing to go to vet school and take those jobs,” explains Waters.

But of course, large animal vets don’t do what they do just for the money: Passion is also key in this career.

“If you love it, you’ll never work a day in your life,” says Waters. “I absolutely love my job when I am at work and I just get to work with cattle and horses. That is my happy place. That is what motivates me to do a good job, it’s just ingrained in me to care for animals. If you love it and you’re in it and you have passion for it, you will absolutely be happy as a large animal vet.”

While the life of a large animal vet isn’t without its struggles, at the end of the day, it’s all worth it for those who have a passion for animals. 

“Being able to help an animal, and seeing how an animal recovers then seeing the family be so grateful for you to save that animal, it gives you that warm bubbly feeling that you’ve done something heroic. There’s nothing more rewarding than that. That’s what drives us.”

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