EU shortage of vets: animal health and animal protection acutely at risk

The health of agricultural livestock plays a key role in the area of tension between consumer health protection, animal welfare and profitability. The health of mankind is extensively dependent on animal health; maintaining it equates to active animal protection, and healthy animals are the farmer’s business capital. 

No matter whether infections, parasitoses, udder diseases, metabolic or fertility problems are involved, they all impact on the animals’ performance and therefore the economic situation of the agricultural enterprise. Agricultural success is and will therefore continue to be based on healthy livestock. In order to maintain its health, veterinary surgeons are now being called upon to provide increasing advisory expertise in terms of husbandry and feeding issues in addition to specialist medical knowledge.

Shortage of young vets

However, these increasingly complex veterinary requirements are faced with an acute problem: a shortage of veterinary surgeons. Of the roughly 22,000 veterinary surgeons currently practising in Germany (including around 12,000 practice owners and 10,000 salaried vets), only around 3,500 are still involved in the care of agricultural livestock.

“Veterinary resources are becoming increasingly scarce, especially in rural areas, because there is a lack of young talent in curative care,” explains Heiko Färber, Managing Director of the Bundesverband Praktizierender Tierärzte (bpt - German Association of Practising Veterinary Surgeons).

The reasons for this are varied. Besides the desire for proximity to an urban setting and the work/life balance, the working conditions that are still difficult in part as well as insufficient selection processes for veterinary medicine students are also playing a role among the younger generation. Ever increasing statutory requirements and the related bureaucracy are additionally exacerbating the situation.

This is confirmed by taking a look at the national implementation of the EU Veterinary Medicinal Products Regulation, because the latest (first) amendment of the German Veterinary Medicinal Products Act not only establishes additional reporting obligations, but is also aimed at further reducing necessary antibiotic treatments although the use of antibiotics in (livestock) farming has already been reduced by more than 60 percent over the past ten years. This figure is proof positive that veterinary surgeons and animal owners are emphatically committed to the concept of one health. A further reduction in necessary antibiotic treatments poses a serious risk of negative impacts on animal health and therefore animal protection. This was recently pointed out very clearly once again by the bpt in the expert hearing of the Bundestag’s Committee on Food and Agriculture on 17 October of this year.

Nationwide care in jeopardy

“All of this is a major dilemma, because not only the partially fruitless search for salaried veterinary surgeons is causing problems. The situation is additionally being exacerbated by the age structure in the practices, with succession plans that are no longer achievable. If this situation remains, it will very soon become impossible to guarantee nationwide veterinary care any longer,” forecasts Färber. “But if sick or injured animals can no longer be provided with adequate treatment due to a shortage of vets, that is clearly relevant to animal protection,” he continues.

In the opinion of the veterinary profession, the easing of framework conditions for the immigration of skilled workers, as proposed by the German Federal Government in its skilled workers strategy, is not sufficient by itself to counteract this trend, which poses a risk to animal protection in Germany. What is required instead is the speedy relaxation of the German Working Time Act to enable more flexible deployment of the ever-growing group of salaried veterinary surgeons as well as a significant reduction in bureaucracy so that the increasingly scant working time that is available can actually be used for working on animals and therefore for animal health.

Final implementation of statutory livestock health care

“In addition, animal health and therefore animal protection would be better served by using the scant resources available in livestock practices to intensify veterinary livestock health care,” explains Heiko Färber. 

Mandatory veterinary inspections of livestock have already been anchored in EU animal health legislation since April 2021. Unfortunately, this EU stipulation has not been transposed into national law as yet. 

“The speedy implementation of livestock health care demanded unanimously by the bpt and all veterinary associations would have a much faster and longer lasting effect on the health situation on farms and would also contribute more effectively to a further reduction in the use of drugs than additional reporting obligations that are of questionable benefit,” emphasises Färber. 

The reason being that regular and closely-knit livestock inspections are of great value to both animal welfare and consumer health protection as well as the legal protection of farmers as food producers. They also help to ensure that high-quality foods can be produced profitably with healthy animals, because integrating livestock health care by the farm vet into the production process enables treatment costs to be reduced, veterinary medicine to be used in a more targeted manner and the use of antibiotics to be further optimised at the same time. Instead of being a cost factor, the work of veterinary surgeons is therefore transformed into a profitability factor for the farmer.

The (professional) livestock health care guidelines were set out back in 2008 by the Bundesverband Praktizierender Tierärzte in cooperation with the German Federal Government and the Federal States and were updated in 2019. They can be found at:

Innovations for increased animal welfare

In parallel with the often long-winded regulatory processes, technical innovations can also ensure husbandry conditions that are appropriate to the respective species, thus improving animal protection. This is a matter very close to Heiko Färber’s heart: “The Animal Welfare Awards presented by the bpt together with DLG serve precisely this purpose. Those of the new developments/innovations presented at EuroTier that make a particular contribution to animal welfare and animal health are selected for this.” 

This year’s three winners are dedicated to the automated early detection of respiratory diseases in pig sties, teat health and the physiological lying down and getting up of dairy cows in cubicles. 

“With these impressive innovations, we can achieve benefits for the animals far more quickly than with regulations. For me, this is One Health-work in action,” says a delighted Färber.