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Pursuing careers in animal health – an opportunity for people of color

About 85 million households in the U.S. own a pet. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are numerous health benefits associated with pet ownership. Pets increase opportunities for exercise, going outside, and engaging with others. Regular walking or playing with pets can help decrease blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and the companionship pets provide can help manage loneliness and depression. As reported in a 2015 study by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), the estimated health care cost savings of pet ownership is about $11.7 billion. Nationwide, 23 million American households acquired a pet during the COVID-19 pandemic, as pets played a pivotal role in helping people cope with the challenges of sheltering in their homes.

In 2020, pet ownership in the U.S. rose from 67% of households to 70%, according to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), and of the $123.6 billion spent on pets in the U.S. in 2021, $43.8 billion, or 35% of the total was spent on veterinary care, product sales, grooming, training, boarding and other services. The growth of pet ownership is expected to continue with a projected 33% increase in pet healthcare spending over the next decade.

Pet health and the provision of pet healthcare contributes to the wellbeing of all communities. Unfortunately, the animal healthcare industry does not reflect the diversity of the communities it serves

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show the veterinary profession is overwhelmingly homogenous, with white veterinarians representing 93.3% of the profession, Asians, 5.6%; Hispanic/Latinx, 4.7%, and Blacks representing a mere 1.2% of all veterinarians. For context, whites comprise 59.3% of the total U.S. population, Blacks, 12.6%; Asians, 5.9% and Hispanic/Latinx, 18.9%, according to The Census Bureau.

Food safety and healthy animals

The importance of animal health to human health goes far beyond the role that pets play in our day to day lives. It extends to the food we eat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) food safety inspection system is based on the understanding that healthy livestock (think chicken, pork, beef, and dairy) are essential for a safe food supply. The food animal chain is a complex system of processes that begin at the farm and end at the dinner table. Keeping the food supply safe involves a network of interdependent roles that includes everyone from farm workers, transporters, and food inspectors, all the way to the people preparing wings for your Super Bowl Sunday celebrations! Ample professional opportunities exist in this value chain for members of under-represented groups who have career interests in animal health and animal science but might not be interested in becoming a veterinarian.

Thinking about value in animal health: Perspective matters

Outcomes Research (OR) focuses on determining the value of health interventions. It began as a branch of Public Health in human medicine and is based on the principle that health interventions produce changes that can be measured and valued. This is the foundation for evidence-based medicine. Interventions are not limited to medications or clinical procedures, but may include services, resources, policies, and contributors along a value chain.In an article in Nature in 1998, Clancy and Eisenberg emphasized the importance of considering patients’ experiences, preferences, and values in outcome evaluation, as well as the needs of those who provide, organize and pay for healthcare, including the public.

Fundamentally, outcomes research is about perspective. What is the value of considering a minority pet owner’s experience with managing the health of their pet? It’s not merely a transactional relationship – their experience goes beyond the medical care that the pet receives. It also involves their sense of belonging or inclusion in the interaction. Nearly 40% of all black households own at least one pet, but Black veterinarians comprise only 1.2% of all veterinarians. What is the impact of having or interacting with animal health professionals who look like you? Considerable research has been done to study the impact the lack of representation in the veterinary profession has on everything from attracting more members of under-represented racial groups to the profession; to pet owners’ likelihood to seek veterinary care for their animals. Representation matters. It matters for young people considering a future in animal health, and it matters for clients in the examination room.

Fortunately, National Geographic television shows like Critter Fixers: Country Vets showcasing Black veterinarians Dr. Vernard Hodges and Dr. Terrence Ferguson; and Pop Goes the Vet with Dr. Joya, featuring Dr. Joya Griffin, a veterinary dermatologist, demonstrate what an exciting career veterinary medicine can be. And a variety of resources exist that give exposure to audiences of young people who are unaware of these career pathways. Pawsibilities Vet Med, a non-profit organization that aims to improve the recruitment and retention of underrepresented groups into the veterinary profession is one such resource. More locally, Purdue University’s League of Vetahumanz™ partners with community organizations and schools to deliver veterinary lessons to under-resourced children.

Animal health is a growing sector and offers so many opportunities. According to a report by Mars Veterinary Health, by 2030, the U.S. will need nearly 41,000 additional vets and 133,000 credentialed veterinary technicians to provide medical care for America’s pets. Veterinary technicians work directly with veterinarians to provide nursing care, surgical assistance, and a broad scope of patient care procedures to animals of all species. There are other roles on the veterinary healthcare team as well and each member leverages their expertise to ensure the optimal delivery of care for each patient and client. There are opportunities to pursue career pathways that provide vital contributions in food production, food safety, prevention and control of food-sourced infections, and environmental protection. And there’s an exhaustive array of entrepreneurial opportunities in animal service-related areas including grooming, training, pet daycare, boarding, transportation, pet-sitting and pet photography!

Animal health and human health are interdependent and provide so many opportunities to support our communities socially and economically. Explore resources that broaden your understanding of all the ways animal health impacts our lives, and occupational directions you can pursue.

Kennedy Mwacalimba, BVM, MSc, DLSHTM, PhD is Associate Director Outcomes Research, Zoetis US Operations, the first animal health company to have an Outcomes Research unit. A 2002 graduate of the University of Zambia, Samora Machel School of Veterinary Medicine, Kennedy also holds a Master of Science in the Control of Infectious Diseases in Animals (Royal Veterinary College, London) a PhD in Public Health (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), and a Postgraduate Diploma of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in Public Health and Policy research.
Garnetta Santiago, MA, LVT, is Senior Manager of Academic and Professional Affairs for Zoetis and helps lead strategic engagement with Colleges of Veterinary Medicine and Veterinary Technology programs in the U.S. and Caribbean; as well as educational, wellbeing and professional development outreach to the veterinary profession through digital and social platforms.

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