The American Veterinary Medical Association, a group with about 6,200 food animal vets, estimates the shortage at a relatively small 4 percent. But health officials say even the small gap increases the potential for diseases to go undetected.
"It's not like the other 96 percent can pick up the slack," said Dr. Lyle Vogel, director of the animal welfare division at the association, which used surveys to estimate the shortage. "Because of the distances and workload of the remaining veterinarians they just can't fill in that shortage."
Concerns have centered on more than 800 diseases that can spread from animals to humans, such as salmonella and E. coli. Experts also fear an inability to quickly diagnose conditions like foot and mouth disease and bird flu, said Robin Schoen, director of the Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources at the National Academy of Sciences.
"We're kind of weakening the whole system," Schoen said. "The veterinarian is the front line."
With fewer veterinarians, more duties are falling to farmers and ranchers, who often vaccinate animals, diagnose illnesses and administer antibiotics. But some worry that the long-term result will be an inability to detect diseases early or address outbreaks, especially in remote areas.
The shortage is blamed on graduates of veterinary schools who opt for the regular hours of small animal medicine.
A pilot program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has been designed to deal with the problem. The program admits one student from each of the country's 28 veterinary schools to a course focused on handling emergency disease outbreaks.