Dogs, cats and pocket pets like hamsters, gerbils and lizards aren’t the only animals that get sick and need a trip to the veterinarian. Cows, pigs and other livestock do, too. But the number of food animal veterinarians in the U.S. is rapidly declining.

A University of Georgia incentive program is helping draw the next generation into this declining field.

The UGA food animal veterinary incentive program, which started in 2007, is an early admission program designed for Georgia high school students interested in this practice. So far, all of the allotted 10 slots in the program have been filled.

“Many schools, UGA included, decided that this issue was important, especially since we have a large number of food animal clients,” said Paige Carmichael, associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Through the food animal program, Carmichael hopes to gain “a cohort of students who have experience working with food animals. Because of this they are much more likely to stick with food animal veterinary medicine after they graduate.”

Food animal veterinarians work primarily with beef and dairy cows, pigs, sheep, goats and poultry. The older generation of this type of veterinarian is retiring at a rate of 4 percent to 6 percent annually.

UGA freshman Ali Terrell has worked at small animal clinics since she was 12. She was introduced to large animal medicine by a veterinarian in Greensboro, Ga. “I fell in love with it,” she said.

She’s now working her way through the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, the first step in the incentive program. “There’s a lot of support for students in the ag college,” she said. “They care about the success and about building relationships with their students.”

Students in the program major in animal science, avian biology, dairy science or poultry science. After their CAES graduation, they enter the CVM, provided they fulfill admission requirements.

Any incoming UGA freshman who is a Georgia resident is eligible to apply for the incentive program. Special summer studies, research opportunities and internships are available. One, the National Veterinary Medical Services Act, provides loan forgiveness for students in exchange for their work in rural communities, said Sheila Allen, CVM dean.

Job options for food animal veterinary graduates include private practice, corporate agribusiness, university research and teaching, government veterinary medical officer and diagnostic pathology.

Without food animal veterinarians to detect, manage and prevent diseases, “our first line of defense against outbreaks of diseases like foot-and-mouth is compromised,” said Dean Pringle, a CAES animal science professor.

Foot-and-mouth disease is highly contagious and sometimes fatal, affecting mostly cattle, sheep and pigs. In 2001, an outbreak in Great Britain decimated the livestock industry and postponed general elections and sporting events.

But food animal medicine is not just about detecting diseases. These veterinarians also teach producers how to manage their animals, give them better ways to care for their flocks or herds and do background research to help ensure safe and affordable animal products continue to stock grocery store shelves.

“Not only are you impacting the health of an animal, you’re impacting the economic health of the people you’re working for,” Pringle said. “It’s exciting.”

For more information about the incentive program, visit www.caes.uga.edu/academics/FoodAnimalVIP.html.