ST. LOUIS — Low wages and the burden of student debt are leading to a critical shortage of large-animal veterinarians in rural Missouri, industry experts said.

This is particularly a problem in areas such as Vernon County, where there is one veterinarian for every 206,000 food animals, according to documents filed by the acting state veterinarian with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The greatest need appears to be for veterinarians who treat cattle, horses and pigs.

Jim Reed, a retired farmer and president of the Washington County Farm Bureau, said in emergency situations, an animal may need to see a veterinarian within 15 minutes.

“You’re sitting there dialing every number” and trying to provide the animal with first aid at the same time, Reed said.

The problem seems to begin before veterinarians have even graduated college. Costs are rising and the young vets can’t cope. Between 2008 and 2017, the median amount of debt among vet school graduates rose 44%.

“Tuition expenses have exploded,” said Richard Antweiler, executive director of the Missouri Veterinary Medical Association.

The number of Americans graduating with veterinary medicine degrees also increased by about 6% between 2014 and 2017, data from the Association of American Veterinary Medical College indicates.

Those graduates are, in large part, forgoing employment in rural areas to pursue careers in cities that promise higher salaries. Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicates veterinarians in rural Missouri earn tens of thousands of dollars less than the national average, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

The lack of veterinarians can be dangerous for animals in remote places.

When a cow is giving birth and a vet is two hours away, the cow and the calf could both be dead by the time help arrives, said Carol Ryan, the president of the Missouri Veterinary Medical Association.

The scarcity of vets imperils not just the health of farm animals but also the safety of food distributed for human consumption, said John de Jong, the former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

“If we don’t have enough veterinarians inspecting our food and making sure that our food is safe, that puts the entire American population at risk,” de Jong said.