The way the government tells it, Japan is in dire need of veterinarians.
In a speech in Kobe last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly announced his intention to spearhead an effort to create new veterinary departments in universities across the nation.
The announcement may have been an attempt to rebuff the accusation that the government’s approval of a new veterinary department — the first in 52 years — at a university run by Abe’s longtime confidant, Kotaro Kake, had anything to do with favoritism. Instead, the government explains creating more veterinary departments will help alleviate the shortage of animal doctors.
The following is our look into the status of veterinary education in Japan and the controversy over whether there is a shortage.
What is the expected path for aspiring animal doctors?
Japan currently has 16 universities, both private and public, that have veterinary departments.
Students typically undergo a six-year course and, upon graduation, become eligible to take a national exam for veterinary practice. Of the 1,299 candidates for the exam in fiscal 2015, 1,024 passed, according to the agricultural ministry.
The education ministry and other entities have long advocated against establishing new veterinary departments because veterinarians are putatively in full supply.
How many vets does Japan have?
As of 2016, there were about 39,000 licensed vets, according to the agricultural ministry.
In terms of focus, 38.9 percent were providing care to pets while 11.0 percent were working with livestock.
Another 24 percent had been public servants at central government ministries as well as municipalities — supervising food safety and consulting on public health measures against epidemics such as bird flu and foot-and-mouth disease.
About 12 percent of those licensed had not been practicing as veterinarians, the ministry statistics show.
The remaining vets tallied in the 2016 assessment were in related fields — i.e., faculty members at universities or researchers for drug development.
Are more vets needed?
Demand for vets to treat pets may have peaked, as the number of domestic dogs and cats have trended downward.
Dog ownership in Japan stood at 9.87 million in fiscal 2016, down from its 2008 peak of 13.10 million, according to Japan Pet Food Association statistics, which show yearly data dating back to 2003.
Domestic cats numbered 9.84 million, slightly down from the previous year’s 9.87 million, marking a significant fall from a peak of 10.89 million in 2008.
A recent trend in the country shows a preference for smaller dog breeds such as the Pomeranian and the Chihuahua. Small breeds are generally less vulnerable than larger dogs to developing joint pain and cancer, and therefore tend to require fewer trips to the vet, said Shinji Takai, a professor of Kitasato University School of Veterinary Medicine.
“Demand for pet doctors is losing momentum,” Takai said.
The market for livestock vets has shrunk, too, with pigs numbering 9.54 million in fiscal 2014, compared with 10.62 million in 1994, suggesting demand for veterinary expertise in this area has also plateaued.
“Given the unstoppable drop in the number of livestock, it is the position of the agricultural ministry that there is unlikely to be an uptick in demand for vets in the future,” Jun Warata, chief of the ministry’s Animal Products Safety Division, told a government deregulation meeting in January 2015, according to the meeting minutes.
Why does the government say there’s a need for more veterinary departments?
Contradicting the agricultural ministry’s stance, the Abe administration emphasizes a need for more vets.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has pointed to what he calls a “surge” in the need for vets to work on developing new drugs to treat conditions or illnesses such as dementia and cancer.
“We have seen a situation where drug makers tasked with developing new medicines have been unable to fill the growing need for researchers who are qualified to conduct animal studies due to the shortage of veterinarians,” Suga told a regular news conference earlier this month.
He noted that establishing new veterinary facilities would remedy the situation and “speed up Japan’s development of state-of-the-art medicines.”
The government also cites a burgeoning threat posed by cross-border infections affecting livestock, such as avian flu. This could spell trouble for regions, such as Shikoku, that currently have no veterinary departments, Suga said.
The shortage of vets, he said, leaves these regions woefully unprepared for a potential outbreak of flu, which could spread nationwide without experienced management.
“Failure to contain epidemics could destroy the reputation of, and trust in, local agricultural products, and we believe a new veterinary department would help nurture human resources and boost overall abilities to control the infections,” Suga said.
What are the possible results of creating more veterinary departments?
The Japan Veterinary Medical Association agrees that there is a “localized” shortage of vets as claimed by Suga, but argues against creating new veterinary departments, citing an acute shortage of qualified teachers.
As Takai of Kitasato University explains: “If we go ahead and churn out new departments amid this manpower shortage, there is no doubt the quality of our education will be further compromised,” he said.
In response to Abe’s call for more facilities to be swiftly opened nationwide, Mutsumi Inaba, a professor of veterinary medicine in Hokkaido University, said in an open statement that the prime minister’s “dumbfounding” suggestion “could destroy the root of Japan’s veterinary education.”
Less focused on adding new departments, the JVMA instead insists that the government should turn its attention to improving the veterinary education programs in Japan — long criticized for its poor practical training — in line with global standards.
“We strongly feel that the competence of our students, despite having a six-year educational program, is far from sufficient at the time of graduation,” Takai said.
To address this problem, universities launched a new system last year that would allow senior students to get clinical training — such as taking blood samples — as long as they pass what is called a common achievement test. But these efforts to improve the quality of education may be undermined by the government’s shortsighted plan to just crank out more departments, Takai said.
In order to resolve the localized shortage of vets, the JVMA instead suggests that wages for livestock vets be raised to a level that reflects their harsh working conditions, in order to make the profession more appealing to younger candidates.