(TEXAS TRIBUNE) -- Nudged by a father who trained racehorses, Dr. Orlando Garza set off to study veterinary medicine in College Station 35 years ago. Garza, who now owns an animal hospital in his hometown of El Paso, remembers being the sole Hispanic student in the veterinary program at Texas A&M University.
“There were no Hispanics whatsoever,” said Garza, 57. “I was the only one.”
Decades later, the profession remains one where few Hispanics have applied. Garza was one of 84 Hispanic veterinarians in Texas in 2010, making up less than 2 percent of the state’s 5,728 veterinarians, according to the 2014 book Changing Texas, whose lead author, Steve H. Murdock, is the former state demographer.
With a population that is 38 percent Hispanic, the state would have needed 2,154 Hispanic veterinarians in 2010 — more than 25 times the number of Hispanic veterinarians that year — to reflect the population of the state, Murdock wrote. Hispanics are also underrepresented in other health professions in Texas, though to a lesser degree. The number of Hispanic doctors, for example, would need to triple to reflect the state’s Hispanic population, he wrote.
Dr. Kenita Rogers, associate dean of A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, said diversity was as important in veterinary care as it was in human health care because “every dog, cat, horse and cow is associated with a person.”
Human medical research showed that access to care depended in part on having a critical mass of health professionals who are minorities available to various communities, said Lisa Greenhill, associate executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. That connection is not as clear in veterinary medicine, but there is a growing understanding that because of the bonds that people have with animals, the expectations for veterinarians are similar to those they have for doctors.
The low representation among Hispanics in veterinary medicine is not just apparent in Texas.
“Contrary to societal trends, veterinary medicine remains one of the least diverse professions in the United States,” the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges said on its site.
Other health professions have been working longer to increase diversity, Greenhill said. She said she had found that some minorities do not see veterinary medicine as a career path that contributes to their communities.
“You'll see parents of color more apt to encourage kids to pursue careers in education, engineering and law, and human medicine,” Greenhill said.
The veterinary community has been working to change that notion, promoting veterinary medicine as a meaningful career path for science-minded students by reaching potential veterinarians long before college with the message that the career can include more than just working with animals. There are also jobs in public health policy or food inspection, said Dr. Beth Sabin, associate director of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
“Kids make up their mind about what profession they want to go into at a fairly early age,” Sabin said.
One barrier to recruitment is the fact that veterinary education can be just as expensive as other health training, but the starting salaries are lower. “Folks look at that,” Sabin said.“It’s not that you can’t make a great living as a veterinarian — you certainly can — but those initial few years, you might be more conscious of how much the tuition debt will be.”
There has been progress on increasing diversity in the field, Greenhill said.
Still, of the 11,483 students at 28 veterinary medical colleges across the country last year, 3.8 percent were Hispanic, she said. The percentage was higher at Texas A&M — the only veterinary program in the state — where 7 percent of the students were Hispanic.
Meanwhile, A&M is working to ensure that students are equipped to serve diverse clients by teaching cultural competency and medical Spanish.
Garza and six other doctors at his clinic in El Paso, which is predominately Hispanic, perform dental X-rays on dogs and sometimes draw blood from horses that are on their way to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Garza is the only Hispanic veterinarian at his clinic.
“I see a change happening,” Garza said, noting that more Hispanics are applying to veterinary school.
“It’s a matter of exposure,” he added, “owning pets and then becoming interested in animals in general.”