October 14, 2019
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In Maine, large animal owners look to themselves for most veterinary type care

Julia Bayly | BDN
Julia Bayly | BDN
Calving is a time large animal veterinarians may be called out to a farm to help out.

Anyone who raises animals is all too familiar with this one fact: When it comes to animals, if it can happen, it will.

Just ask Anne Gobes, Southport alpaca farmer and president of the Maine Alpaca Association.

“A few years ago we went out and saw one of our males had stuck his nose in a hole [and] was checking out a porcupine,” Gobes said. “He ended up with quills in and on his nose.”

Rather than call in a large animal veterinarian that specializes in camelids — the family that includes alpacas, llamas and camels — Gobes and her husband kept their cool, rolled up their sleeves and dealt with it themselves.

“We held him very carefully and pulled the quills out,” Gobes said. “He was pretty good about it and seemed happy to be relieved of those quills.”

An at-home treatment with some antibiotics and the curious alpaca was no worse for the close encounter with the porcupine.

Do-it-yourself care

Like large animal owners all over the state, the Gobes take care as much of the routine health care and the less-serious medical treatments of their flock of 22 alpacas themselves, calling in a large animal veterinarian only when an injury or illness has exceeded their skill set.

For animal farmers like the Gobes, taking care of as much of veterinary needs as safely possible onsite just makes sense in terms of time and expense, since it can cost hundreds of dollars to schedule a house call.

Getting the vet to visit a farm is by far the easiest option for the owners, but Gobes said there are times she has no choice other than loading up an injured or sick animal — with an alpaca travel buddy, because solo travel creates severe anxiety in alpacas — and drive nearly 100 miles to the animal care facility. It’s a choice every farmer has to make at some point, she said.

“We do the day to day [health] maintenance ourselves,” Gobes said. “Once a month we give them shots that prevent meningeal worms. We also do our own nail trimming. And while we have them in our hands for that, we check them over to look at their eyes, their teeth and get a good sense of how they are doing.”

Meningeal worms are a parasite of animals like alpacas that can get into the spine or brain and eventually kill the animal.

There is no official definition of a large animal veterinarian in Maine, but according to Dr. Michelle Walsh, state veterinarian with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Large animal vets are veterinarians who traditionally take care of food animals like cows, pigs, goats and sheep, fiber-producing animals, like the alpacas or llamas or work animals like horses, donkeys and oxen — all animals that are extremely difficult to transport to a traditional veterinarian office setting.

“There is no size cut off on animals that define a small [animal] vet versus a large [animal] vet,” Walsh said. “There is a [United States Department of Agriculture] accreditation program that divides veterinarians into two categories.”

Category one, Walsh said, are veterinarians who treat pets or so-called companion animals like dogs and cats. Category two, she said, is everyone else who treats any food animals, horses, birds and other exotic pets.

Walsh’s office maintains a list of practicing large animal veterinarians in Maine, and said when she updated this past spring, there were around 50 veterinary practices from Presque Isle to Portland that offer services for large animals.

Historically it’s hard to know if that number has changed greatly over the years since the list was not begun until 2012 and has not changed much in the years since.

Is there a lack of large animal vets?

About 10 years ago farmers and other large animal owners were expressing concern over a lack of large animal veterinarians, Walsh said.

“For a few years people were insisting we did not have enough,” she said. “The state spent a lot of time looking into this question.”

From her perspective, Walsh said it appeared that the state does have an adequate number of large animal veterinarians to meet current needs, but the geographic distribution of those practices can mean some owners are at such a distance from a large animal vet, accessing that care can be difficult.

That’s the case on the Gobes farm where the nearest large animal veterinary hospital is a 90-mile drive one way in Monmouth.

A necessary skill set

It’s the same for siblings Carrie and Holly Whitcomb who raise and milk a herd of 200 guernsey and Jersey cows on their Springdale Farm in Waldo.

“In general it’s important to have a [medical] skill set of your own if you are going to have large animals,” Carrie Whitcomb said. “Especially on a farm like ours, you need to have those skills.”

The Whitcombs grew up on the family dairy farm and Carrie Whitcomb holds a degree in dairy science.

“We’ve had quite a bit thrown our way here on the farm so we really can do a lot of our own troubleshooting with the animals,” she said. “I can’t imagine getting into [dairy cows] with no experience [because] calling in a vet for every little thing would be very hard and expensive.”

Most large animal farmers learn the basic skills needed to care for their animals through first hand experience or working with other, more experienced farmers until they get the hang of things. University of Maine Cooperative Extension offices also offer workshops on animal care and many veterinarians are happy to share their knowledge.

For the Whitcombs, some of those those skills include knowing what to look for in a cow that indicates it’s not feeling well like discoloration or fluid in the eyes, loose stools or changes in eating patterns, how to properly feed for the different seasonal conditions throughout the year, how to administer required vaccinations, how to treat cow-specific conditions like hypocalcemia, more commonly known as milk fever.

In milk fever a pregnant cow experiences a rapid drop in calcium in the body shortly before giving birth. If left untreated, this metabolic disorder can lead to the animal going into a coma and eventually dying.

By knowing the signs of milk fever, dairy producers like the Whitcombs can begin treatment long before it gets serious enough to call in professional help.

“We pretty much handle the delivery of baby calves ourselves and give the cows the vaccines they need,” Carrie Whitcomb said. “But the most important thing we do is taking good care of them [because] preventing them from getting sick is the bigger goal.”

Calling in the professionals

Sooner or later, there will be a medical issue that is beyond the skill sets of even the most savvy of animal farmers, and that’s when the large animal veterinarian is called in, bringing the expertise and equipment simply not available on most Maine farms.

“If we have an alpaca that is limping or had been in a tussle and got injured, rather than drive the 90 miles to the vets, we wait for the veterinarian to come to us,” Gobes said. “They will come and they can bring travel X-ray machines and other diagnostic equipment.”

There are also times when the Gobes are unsure if an alpaca is pregnant so they will call ask the vet to come to the farm with an ultrasound machine to run some tests.

And while the Gobes are comfortable collecting whatever fecal samples are needed to check for parasites, those samples are sent out to the vets for testing.

“It really comes down to your skill level and training and what you feel comfortable doing,” Gobes said. “For us, we are comfortable with the daily care and the only reason we call in the veterinarian is for an injury that we are unsure of.”

Issues with calving are the most common reasons the Whitcombs call for veterinary help.

“If a cow is having really hard time calving or if there is a really off the wall injury that needs stitches, we will call,” Carrie Whitcomb said. “But we are really lucky and have a really good working relationship with our veterinarian.”

Thanks to that relationship, Carrie Whitcomb said there have been many times she has been able to describe over the phone the issue facing an animal, explain her treatment thoughts and get the green light from the veterinarian to go ahead and proceed.

“I’ll tell them the situation and what I am thinking of doing and they vet will be like, ‘OK, fine, that’s just what I’d do,’” Carrie Whitcomb said. “So there are a lot of situations we can avoid having them come out.”

Changes in medicine

Dr. Janelle Tirrell is an equine veterinarian at Third Coast Equine in Palermo but spends most of her time on the road visiting her two and four-legged clients.

“Equine care has changed a lot in the last couple of decades,” Tirrell said. “It used to be we were art of that ‘fire engine’ world called in only in big emergencies when a horse was dying.”

These days, she said, equine veterinary care is more about preventative medicine.

“Like today, I was out working on one farm looking at a horse’s teeth, doing fall vaccines on other farms and talking to owners.”

When those emergency calls do come in, Terrill said they are most often about colic or a horse that has received lacerations in a fight with another horse or falling.

“It really depends on the owners,” she said. “Most of my clients are pretty well educated about their animals and take care of things early themselves rather than waiting until it gets really bad and calling for help.”

And important relationship

The relationship between veterinarian and large animal owner is key when it comes to deciding when, or when not to schedule a visit, according to Gobes.

“Everything we do with our animals is in conjunction with our vet,” Gobes said. “We can call and ask their opinion and thoughts [because] they might not want or be able to come out if it’s not an emergency.”

That relationship can even involve small animal vets, Gobes said, as some practices are willing to fill prescriptions written by a large animal veterinarian if that saves the owner some drive distance and time.

Veterinarians can also advise when and when not a client should go it alone, Carrie Whitcomb said.

“There times when it is important to have a vet come out,” she said. “With dairy cows there are a lot of strict rules when it comes to certain medications that we can and can’t use ourselves and have to get a vet to administer them.”

Rabies vaccines, for example. It is legal in Maine to obtain the vaccine from an over-the-counter supplier and administer it without a veterinarian.

But that’s not always the best option, according to Walsh.

For the animal to be certified by the state to have been vaccinated against rabies, the serum must be administered by a licensed veterinarian, Walsh said.

Barn calls

Despite doing as much cow care as she can on the farm, Carrie Whitcomb said she does welcome the regularly scheduled monthly visits from the veterinarian, an option many farmers chose. Many large animal veterinarians like to make a monthly trek out to their clients’ farms to look over the animals, talk to the owners and discuss any ongoing issues.

“He comes in to look things over and, while he’s here we can ask them specific questions or to look at a certain cow,” she said.

Terrill has a lot of clients she visits regularly every year, just to check in and see if they have any questions or concerns or just want to chat about their animals.

“That is the opportunity for me to look at the horse and ask the owner questions and they can ask me questions,” she said. “People are really missing out if they don’t take advantage of things like that.”

Getting care where and when it’s needed

Ultimately, Walsh said her department wants to make sure every large animal producer in the state has access to needed veterinary care.

“Whether there is a shortage of [large animal] veterinarians is not a straightforward issue,” she said. “Part of it depends on what kinds of animals and where they are located and part of it depends on whether the owners are able to pay the costs to have the vet travel that distance.”

Parts of the state, including Washington, Waldo and Hancock Counties have been identified as areas underserved by large animal veterinarians according to national criteria, Walsh said, because they are so far away from the animals who may need them.

As such, any perceived shortage of large animal veterinarians in the state is a bit of a numbers game, Walsh said. While there are numerically enough vets to take care of the farm clients in Maine, they are not spread out over an even geographic area.

That means a client in Waldo may only have to drive 30 minutes to access a large animal veterinarian while a farmer in far northern Washington County could be looking at an hours-long trip.

That travel distance can mean vets looking to practice in those areas could be eligible for highly competitive federal funds that help repay student loans.

“It’s one way to encourage vets to move into those areas,” Walsh said. “Maine has had at least six awardees.”

Walsh said she and her staff spend a lot of time talking to farmers about their animals’ needs.

“It’s important in a state like Maine that values its agriculture producers that the have the services they need,” she said. “It’s hard enough to be a farmer but even harder if you have a health issue you can’t handle on your own and don’t have the availability of veterinary services.”


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