Friday, March 7, 2014
Rebecca Myers Law, DVM at Turner Veterinary Service has been working with large animals for over 20 years. Dr. Law is well aware of the veterinarian shortages in South-Central Maine facing the next generation of farmers and is intent on creating a welcoming atmosphere for potential farm animal veterinarians.
With the help of donations and grant funding Dr. Law has plans to build a Farm Animal Haul-In Clinic to provide a safe environment where farm animals can be brought to the service and cared for at a cost that is affordable to farmers. Currently, Dr. Law and her associates work out of the backs of pick-up trucks in the parking lot by flashlight when necessary to accommodate such visits.
In addition to providing a place for specialized treatment or surgery, the facility would help serve as a training ground for students who come to the clinic annually to further their education and interest in farm animal vet work, and provide a space in which to hold client-education meetings on pertinent livestock-related topics.
Dr. Law took a few minutes out of her day to help educate The Root’s readers on veterinary care for large animals.
What types of large farm animals do you treat most frequently and for what?
Our large animal practice has historically been a “food and fiber animal” practice, primarily dairy farm based. We also treat beef cattle, sheep and goats, llamas and alpacas, pigs, poultry, and now also horses.
Our workday is divided between scheduled farm calls, emergency farm calls, and some farm animals that come in to the clinic for treatment. Examples of scheduled farm calls would be routine vaccinations, health exams, reproductive work, and herd management consultation. Examples of emergencies are difficult birthings, injuries, and medical and surgical emergencies, such as bladder stones in goats, which can suddenly get lodged in the urethra and prevent a male goat from passing urine.
How far does the average client with large farm animals live from your practice?
Well, there’s hardly an “average client” any more. We go to farms that have anywhere from one to several hundred farm animals. Driving distances have increased a lot over the years, because there are fewer dairy farms every year. We cover all or part of six counties. When I first graduated in 1987, I worked in a practice that thought it preposterous to drive more than 15 miles for a farm call. Now some of the farms we visit are 80 – 100 miles apart. When emergencies happen, someone needs to get there regardless of what our starting point might be. This is why we want to build a haul-in clinic at our site in Turner. If at least some of the large animal patients could come to us, it would save a lot of valuable time and money for both the farm clients and us vets.
Any trends, anything you are seeing in the past five to ten years?
We are seeing new diseases and changing management issues all the time. A very noteworthy change in the last 5- 10 years is drug resistance in parasites that affect the small ruminants (sheep and goats, especially). We attend continuing education seminars every year to stay abreast of changes in farm animal medicine in our region, and offer diagnostic testing and consultation to all of our farm clients to help them stay ahead of any new threats to animal health and farm productivity.
Describe a typical day for the practice. What do you love most about what you do?
As I mentioned earlier, the day is divided between routine, scheduled farm work and the unexpected emergencies and sick animal calls that come in during the day. Most days there are two large animal vets available at TVS, so we try to divide the list so it makes the most geographical sense possible. Some of our farm clients have great facilities for restraint and treatment, and others have only a shed out back with no electricity, running water, etc., so we have to make do. The variety actually makes the day quite interesting, as well as getting out and working with the farmers, many of whom have become good friends over the years. I suppose the best feeling of all still comes from being able to make a sick animal well again, or help an injured animal heal and reduce its pain and suffering. It’s also a great feeling to know that we are helping our farms stay economically viable in these challenging times.
What are some of the safety precautions you have to take when treating large animals during a farm visit and how can their owners help prepare them for the vet?
I’m glad you asked! We always appreciate it when the client has their animal caught and in an area where we can safely work on it. Sometimes a chute is essential, because it is the safest way for us to work, depending on the type of animal. For example, a beef operation really needs a chute, not just a pen or even a head-catch, because it’s the feet that we need protection from. Dairy cows, on the other hand, rarely kick and are used to going being approached from the rear. Sheep and goats can generally be held with just a collar, although if ultrasounding for pregnancy, for example, a stand is really handy. So you see, it really depends on the animal and what we expect to be doing, but I am a stickler for safety and really try to avoid getting hurt, and that goes for my associates as well. Of course, you can’t prevent all injuries. I had my hand broken once by a dairy cow in a totally fluke situation. Normally, I wouldn’t expect a dairy cow, standing in her stall in a milking barn, to present any trouble, but this one did (and her name was Becky! – go figure!?)
I will also mention that we charge by the hour, so being organized and having your animal ready to be examined is the most cost-effective by far.
When needed, we are equipped with tranquillizers that can come in very handy and make procedures of all kinds more pleasant for ourselves and our patients.
What preventative care measures do you recommend for owners of large farm animals to take keep them healthy?
I would say it’s very important to provide the proper feed and water for the animal that you are raising. This sounds simple, but you’d be amazed how many people don’t realize things like goats can get very sick eating chicken feed or that a sheep can be emaciated and look very plump simply because it has a thick coat of fleece on. Each species has a list of problem diseases that can be prevented with vaccinations, and many of the species need monitoring for parasites. Of course I recommend a good working relationship with a farm animal veterinarian, but also, livestock owners should know what normal behavior is for their animal, so a change, like loss of appetite, coughing, lack of desire to move about, etc., will trigger the knowledge that something is wrong. They should also put their hands on their animals and actually feel their body condition – do you feel bony prominences under that wool coat, or is your animal so fat that you can’t find its ribs? Neither condition is desirable.
Another common sense suggestion is to learn as much as you can about a new species before taking the leap and bringing animals home. There is A LOT to know about care, feeding and housing, so much better to start small and get educated first.
I've heard it can be difficult to find a vet who will treat large animals on the weekend and holidays. Do you have an emergency backup service?
Our practice does cover our own emergencies. In other words, one of us is on call 24/7 for farm animal problems. Many areas no longer have a farm animal vet, so yes, what you have heard is true for a lot of people. All of our regular clients have our cell phone numbers, and that’s how they reach the Doctor on call. We don’t put this information on our office phone message because some of our large animal doctors also see small animals one or two days per week, and the emergency service we provide ourselves is not for pets. We are shareholders in the AECMM http://www.aec-midmaine.com in Lewiston, but the services provided there are strictly for companion animals.
How does training differ for a veterinarian who is treating large farm animals than from the average vet who treats companion animals? I’m asking, because it’s been suggested that people ask the vet for their dog/cat to consider treating livestock i.e. chickens, goats…
It’s not so much the training, but what the individual does with it after veterinary school --at least that is true of my generation (Cornell, class of 1987). Nowadays there is often an option for ”tracking” of career interests in veterinary school. Whether formally or not, most of us start to head in our area of interest while still in vet school. Then later on it becomes a matter of what we are comfortable doing. Many small animal vets would not dream of working on a farm animal, for a lot of good reasons, such as lack of experience and current knowledge. Take the legal field for example – you wouldn’t hire a trial lawyer to make out your will, would you?
Finding a Vet:
Turner Veterinary Services
Cooperative Extension List of Vets who treat large animals.
Dr. Peter Caradona in Gardiner 207-582-8927
First Aid Kit for Livestock Animals:
For farmers who find themselves in the situation of having to take on more medical care of their animals. *This list has been compiled from a variety of sources including Anne Lichtenwalner Assistant Professor, Extension Vet University of Maine Animal Health Lab and Rebecca Myers Law, DVM Turner Veterinary Service.
Nonstick dressing pads
Sterile gauze squares for bandaging
Topical antiseptic (i.e. Nolvasan)
Sterile Staline Solution
Latex or plastic exam gloves
Hemostats and forceps
Water-based lubricating jelly (for use with thermometer)
Flashlight and spare batteries
Extra towels, blankets
List of phone numbers including veterinarian, emergency vet, transportation
Ice pack, heat pack
Epinephrine (if you plan on giving any kind of vaccines) with syringes and instructions
Photos by Sharon KitchensTweet
Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.
When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.
In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.