6 min read

An Inside Look at the Lives of Rural Vets


Written by Leslie Ingraham

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 04/25/2022, edited: 04/27/2022

Unlike your local animal clinic vets, a rural veterinarian generally specializes in large animals, like those you'd normally see on a farm. Horses, cattle, pigs and goats are just a few of the animals a rural vet travels from location to location to treat, as their size and numbers often make it difficult to visit a vet office. While a small animal veterinarian generally sees house pets in a clinic during office hours, a rural vet never knows how their day is going to look, and hours are rarely the same from day to day. Yet, rural vets often carry a deep love of their job, and value the spontaneity of their profession. 

For this World Veterinary Day on April 30th, we are celebrating the amazing people who have chosen to become veterinarians in the U.S., including rural vets. Let’s take a look at a few rural vets and what they do.

Life of a rural vet

Many farms in rural areas have stopped calling the vet when one of their cattle, pigs, horses, or other farm animals needs routine medical care to save money in a down-spiraling farm economy. Families struggle to keep food on the table and call the vet only when an animal is in trouble. Farmers have had to learn routine care in order to stay competitive. Because of this, area rural vets can often get the cases that are the most desperate, unpredictable, and arguably the most interesting. 

Taking X-rays using portable machines, giving medications, and assisting in difficult births are all part of the rural vet’s repertoire. Even surgery in a cow stall may figure into their day. No rural vet knows exactly what a day will bring, even when they have a full schedule of appointments in or out of the office. 

There are fewer rural vets than urban vets, and their numbers continue to dwindle for a variety of reasons, despite federal and state programs that help with grants and student loan forgiveness in return for a commitment to practice in underserved areas for a given number of years. In 2019, it was estimated that over 500 rural counties in 44 midwestern states had experienced a shortage of small and large animal vets.

For vets in rural practice, this shortage impacts their professional and personal lives significantly. Most of them drive many more miles to clients’ farms than they might have previously and can be called in the middle of the night for emergencies. Their income is typically lower than urban or suburban vets as well. Despite this, rural vets often speak of their love for the profession and say they wouldn’t want to do any other job. 

Let's check out a few of these rural vet heroes!

Rural vet examining a goat on a farm

The Atypical Typical Day of Dr. Bergerud

When veterinarian Dan Bergerud opened Cass Veterinary Services in Virginia, Illinois, 94% of his patients included cattle and other farm animals. Now, 90% of the animals in his practice are pets like dogs and cats. But for him and his practice partners, a busy schedule can be disrupted on any given day in favor of driving to a farm to treat an animal in distress. And, like the rest of the vets, a rotating week of emergency on-call duty sees unpredictable night and weekend calls.

Dr. Bergerud also treats respiratory illness, diarrhea, and other GI problems. A big part of his job with large animals involves birthing calves, either naturally or by caesarean section. Vaccinations, de-worming, and other parasite treatments can often be part of the visit, and Dr. Bergerud prefers to see these animals in the clinic’s large animal section fitted with cattle gates and chutes. But visits to area farms can happen any time of the day or night. Because Cass Veterinary covers five counties, including some in surrounding states, some of their work means long drives and longer hours.

Despite the unpredictability, Dr. Bergerud and other vets thrive on the urgency and variety of their rural practices and wouldn’t do anything else for a living.

RVETS traveling vets

The acronym RVETS stands for Rural Veterinary Experience, Teaching, and Service. These dedicated veterinary professionals have served countless animals in rural areas in the U.S. and south of the border in Mexico and Guatemala. Eric Davis, DVM and Cindy Davis, RVT, have many years of experience between them, in private practice, teaching, and working with all animals including family pets, horses, donkeys, and mules. Eric worked for several years as a farrier, a technician who trims and shoes hooves, so he knows these animals from the bottom up.

The Davises spend their time traveling to villages and farms with volunteers who are also veterinary professionals, where they encounter a seemingly unlimited list of medical needs. Their days are spent largely on horseback, riding miles in the desert or over the plains to the next makeshift clinic. Once there, they perform myriad tasks while trying to avoid the occasional cactus thorn injury. They sleep in their bus, or camp out under the stars.

Much of their care is given outdoors, and it ranges from birthing foals to treating saddle sores and snake bites, and even machete wounds to a 20-year-old burro’s thigh. Eric and Cindy chronicle some of their travels and challenging cases on their website. 

Faced with extreme poverty and difficult living conditions, RVETS relies on donations and the generosity of its volunteers to be able to do their work. They purchase sick and injured animals from time to time so they can provide the nurturing and medical support needed to heal. Sometimes they make camp in the middle of the desert and animals begin spontaneously appearing with their families to be treated under tents and lean-tos. Committed to global equine health , the pair have been visiting underserved rural areas for over 15 years.

The Critter Fixers

Two men met in college and decided to enroll in the Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine together. Vernard Hodges, DVM and Dr. Terrence Ferguson then went on to set up a practice in rural farm country about 100 miles south of Atlanta, GA. They’ve since bought a farm together and are raising Angus cattle.

Both men grew up in rural America and had experiences with animals when they were young that steered them to veterinary medicine. Their two super-busy pet clinics are only part of what they do on a daily basis. Their neighbors may bring in injured or sick wild animals, like the baby bunny who’d been grabbed by a cat. The Critter Fixers help with anything related to animals, including chasing down escaped horses and performing surgery on calves and deer.

Drs. Hodges and Ferguson are also TV personalities. Appearing on the Critter Fixers: Country Vets show for National Geographic Wild, they offer an entertaining view into their daily lives treating animals. With a lot of laughter and warmth, they offer up advice to pet and livestock owners and demonstrate their special skills in diagnosing and treating a variety of animal ailments. Now in Season 3, the show appears on the NGW network on Saturday mornings.

In spite of their busy practice, these two veterinarians find time to address an issue near and dear to their hearts: encouraging young people, especially people of color, to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. They found that only 2% of the vets in the U.S. are black, and they see the profession having a positive influence on young black lives along with helping to increase the number of veterinarians working in rural areas. By educating students and providing teaching, apprenticeships, and mentorship programs in their own clinics and elsewhere, they hope to educate children and parents about opportunities in veterinary medicine.

While having a TV show, running a full and busy practice, writing books, and traveling to provide outreach may not be part of every rural veterinarian’s day, these two committed professionals seem to have the endless energy and commitment to do it all!

Rural veterinarians continue to keep rural and farming communities going by providing veterinary services to their animals. Hardworking, patient, and dedicated, they are critical parts of the U.S. economy and culture. 

Do you know of other fascinating stories about rural vets? Share them with us on Twitter, or tag #wagwalking or @wag on Instagram for a chance to be featured on our feed!

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