BLACKSBURG, Va. -- As a child growing up outside Baltimore, Annie Harvilicz knew all along what she wanted to be when she grew up: a veterinarian.
She wasn't the only young girl with that aspiration, it turns out. To Harvilicz's dismay, the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, where she is a second-year student, has about three times as many women as men enrolled.
"When I got to vet school, everyone was just like me -- young women who really like animals and study a lot," said Harvilicz, 24, who lived in Edgewood before moving to Bethesda. "I would feel more unique if there were more guys."
Harvilicz's concern about the homogeneity of veterinary students is shared around the country. The nation's 27 veterinary schools are now nearly 75 percent female -- a marked change from just 15 years ago, when schools were split evenly between the sexes.
Although the numbers of women are also rising in medical, dentistry and pharmacy schools, those programs remain more balanced than veterinary schools. The gender divide in vet schools has grown so wide that some worry the imbalance could have unwanted consequences for the profession.
Among their concerns:
Female veterinary students are more likely than their male counterparts to focus on small-animal medicine. Although that is where most of the demand is for veterinary services now, some school administrators worry that schools are not producing enough graduates who specialize in so-called "food-animal" medicine.
The growing number of female graduates might be contributing to salary stagnation in the veterinary profession, where starting salaries for vets in private practice have remained stuck around $40,000 for several years. A 1999 report found that female veterinarians charge less for their services, on average, than men do.
Salary concerns, in turn, have led the profession to limit the number of slots at veterinary schools, to increase the demand for existing veterinarians. That has made vet school admission as competitive as that of many medical schools.
The increase in female veterinarians might imperil the small, private veterinary practice because female vets express less interest than men in owning their own clinic, according to the 1999 study. School administrators and students say that is because some women worry that the responsibility of owning a clinic will conflict with family obligations.
"Women veterinarians by and large are less economically driven than their male counterparts, since they may not be the primary breadwinners in their family," said Peter Eyre, dean of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, on the Virginia Tech campus. "The fact that there are more women in the profession has changed the work picture significantly."
Signs of changes
The new face of the profession is on clear display at the school in Blacksburg in southwestern Virginia, which opened in 1980 as a cooperative venture between Virginia and Maryland. The public school, which has branches in College Park and Leesburg, Va., annually accepts 30 students from Maryland and 50 from Virginia, along with 10 from other states, for the four-year program.
This year's entering class was 78 percent female, the highest proportion ever. The signs are everywhere -- in the colorful displays of animal photos that female students build at their classroom desks, in the notice on the bulletin board advertising "embroidery available for your lab coats -- animals, letters, flowers, etc." The school recently reconfigured its bathrooms to accommodate its many women.
It's a big change for the old-guard leadership of the school, which remains mostly male. Eyre, the longest-serving veterinary school dean in North America, recalls attending school in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the 1950s, where there were only four women in his class of 60.
"The students were all farm boys, but that's not true today," he said.
Theories behind gender gap
There's no consensus about the reasons for the gender gap in vet schools. Some believe that men have shied away from veterinary medicine because it doesn't pay as well as other health care fields. Although some specialists earn well over $100,000 a year, the median pay is in the $65,000 range.
"We work just as hard in vet school as people in med school, but you can't make much money in the profession," said fourth-year student Susan Johns, from California.
Others believe the gender gap is another consequence of the newfound prominence of the American household pet. There are an estimated 60 million dogs and 65 million cats in America, and owners are increasingly willing to spend heavily to keep them healthy.
"These animals are living the life of Riley -- the dogs have gone from the barnyard and herding sheep to the bedroom, and cats are sleeping on silk cushions," Eyre said.
Society's growing appreciation for human-animal bonds has made the veterinary profession a natural fit for young women with an interest in medicine, Eyre added.
"Women by and large have a stronger nurturing inclination, which is a perfectly normal gender difference," he said. "Males look at veterinary medicine and say, 'I can make more money somewhere else.'"
Students at the Blacksburg school don't dispute Eyre's generalization. Lisa Math, a fourth-year student from Annandale, Va., said she was drawn to the profession partly by the "amazing high [of helping] an animal that has no ability to help itself."
Said Zack Nyman, a Baltimore native and one of the handful of men in the first-year class, "Men are more driven by money. They're going after M.D.'s or [dentistry degrees] because there's a lot more instant gratification for money. This is seen as a profession that's very caring and maternal, that kind of thing."
The motivations of today's veterinary students are reflected in their pet-filled dormitory rooms and apartments, Harvilicz said.
"Vet school is a lot like in Harry Potter, you know, where everyone either brings an owl, toad or cat to school. In my house, we have four dogs upstairs, a dog downstairs and a chicken," she said. "It all comes down to liking pets."
Lessons in making money
To counter salary stagnation, the Maryland-Virginia vet school requires first-year students to take a class on financial management in the profession.
"We really are making an attempt to get students better prepared for the job market than they are now," said Grant Turnwald, the school's associate dean of academic affairs.
Harvilicz welcomes the effort, saying she is one of relatively few students at the school who seem concerned about their financial prospects. It's galling, she says, to compare her likely salary with her lawyer brother's, considering that vet school lasts a year longer than law school.
"A lot of people coming into vet school are overly compassionate, and that doesn't translate into making money," she said. "They're trying to get into people's heads that money's not a bad thing."
It is less clear how the school can address the lack of interest in food-animal medicine and in government veterinary work. Although a third of the class of 1994 focused on those fields, only 12 percent of the class of 2004 does, with 70 percent concentrating on small animals. (Interest in equine medicine has held steady at about 8 percent of each class.)
It's an unfortunate trend, administrators say, considering that some of the most successful research at the college is being done by food-animal experts whose work on cattle vaccination is helping in the search for a new human anthrax vaccine.
Concern in recent events
The trend is especially troubling to those who fear that terrorists could try to disrupt America's food industry by introducing viruses like foot-and-mouth disease to domestic livestock. "If we do get food-animal terrorism, it will be food-animal veterinarians who first notice it," said Turnwald.
The school gives scholarships to students specializing in food-animal medicine, but it has resisted giving preferential treatment in admissions to applicants interested in large-animal or government work. That wouldn't be fair to other applicants, Eyre said.
Some students, including Harvilicz, think the school should consider recruiting measures to increase the number of male students -- if nothing else, to balance out a skewed social scene.
"I hate the fact that there aren't enough guys. It would be nicer for girls not to have to compete for the guys' attention," she said.
Administrators are sympathetic but say it would be difficult to start giving favorable treatment to male applicants to close the school's gender gap.
"It would be better if we had a 50-50 mix," Eyre said. "But could you have affirmative action that favored men as an underrepresented minority? That's a strange notion. I don't know if we can do anything until it becomes very severe."