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Rocky Vista announces plans for college of veterinary medicine amid growing vet shortage

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Posted at 6:29 PM, Jan 11, 2024

BILLINGS — A new veterinary college is coming to Montana, hoping to fill gaps in care for small and large animals.

Rocky Vista University, which currently operates a college of osteopathic medicine, announced Thursday that it would be building a college of veterinary medicine on its Billings campus.

Dr. Bob Murtaugh, the founding dean of the new school, says the unique three-year intensive program will be ready to take students in 2026 if everything goes to plan with accreditation and construction.

“There's openings only for 4,000 applicants in the US every year, and there's more than 12,000 qualified students," Murtaugh said. "So we're going to look for the best and the brightest and certainly focus on students here in the Montana area for our classes.”

To illustrate just how much of an impact the new veterinary school could have, Murtaugh draws the analogy to medical schools nationwide: Currently, there's 155 medical schools and only 30 veterinary colleges.

“We serve the same population, plus we serve a variety of species and a variety of niches in helping the public with regard to public health, food safety and other things. And so there's a great need," Murtaugh said.

Dr. Edie Best, a 30-year veterinarian in Billings, has seen the need for vets and vet techs grow in Montana.

“I think that there could potentially be more need for large animal practitioners now than small animal," Best said. "I think there's just not the interest and it's hard for people to go into that field."

Best said that the shortage of vets and vet techs translates into longer wait times, more serious cases, and higher costs for clients.

"So the vomiting puppy who might have eaten part of its toy, could have maybe been treated medically initially, can't get in, can't see anybody two days, three days down the road. Now it's an emergency case," Best said.

Murtaugh says building a veterinary college in Montana is strategic—especially for addressing large animal practices.

“We're looking to make up that difference and try to improve quality of life for ranchers and the agricultural community here in Montana, as well as the companion animal needs of the area and the community," Murtaugh said.

Beyond building a pool of veterinarians in Montana, the new college also brings business.

"The project they'll build will add to our tax base and is really valuable to us as a community," said Steve Arveschoug, executive director of Big Sky Economic Development. "We're very appreciative of that private investment they're making in our community. It's also going to attract new students from all over the country.”

Arveschoug adds that after graduation, veterinarians often become small business owners by opening their own practices, building stronger economic bonds in the community.

"It's exciting. What a great opportunity we have as a community, as a region, as a state," Arveschoug said.

RVU sent a press release with additional details of the project:

The College will offer a comprehensive Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program to train future veterinarians. RVU has been working on this project for the past 18 months and while this new program is still in the process of becoming accredited, it has the potential of helping to solve the critical veterinary care shortage in Montana and the Mountain West region. There is currently no other veterinary school within 400 miles of Billings.

The program is seeking accreditation through the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Council on Education and the Higher Learning Commission (HLC). If approved by the accreditors, RVU will proceed with planned construction of a Veterinary Medicine academic building on a parcel that has already been acquired adjacent to their existing campus located on Billings’s west end.

Dr. Murtaugh is currently working with senior university leadership and other academic veterinary experts on curriculum development, faculty planning, clinical relationships, and other major steps to develop this new program.