They have fallen victim to cost cuts forced on farmers trying to cope with the drop in livestock prices caused by the BSE crisis and the collapse of Asia's tiger economies.
New government statistics show veterinarians have an abnormally high rate of suicide. Thousands of rural vets have suffered a 30 per cent drop in turnover, leading them to cut staff numbers by half.
Practices in Wales, Scotland, parts of Kent and even in the North Yorkshire Dales featured in Herriot's All Creatures Great And Small, have also been severely affected, because farmers are putting animals down rather than pay for treatment.
Profits for farmers are now at their lowest for 25 years, the collapse of the Russian and Asian economies having hit pig and sheep exports hard. Herd sizes have been reduced, leaving fewer animals to be treated.
Last week, a confidential helpline was launched by associations representing vets to tackle alcohol and drug abuse amongst the estimated 1,000 professionals who already find it hard to cope.
The Veterinary Surgeons' Health Support Programme is similar to schemes available to dentists and pharmacists for several years.
"Vets do not get the same feedback from patients as doctors do," said a spokesman. "They are more likely to be bitten or kicked by their patients and the current situation does not help matters."
Veterinary associations are warning that practices could disappear in remote parts of the country and that if vets visit farms less frequently, disease could go undetected. Last year there were nearly 10,000 vets in general practice who spent 20 per cent or more of their time dealing with farm animals.
Neil Spedding, a vet for more than 30 years, is consultant to a practice in Ripon, North Yorkshire, serving nearly 400 farms. Several pig farmers in the area have gone bankrupt, which has severely affected the practice. Turnover is down by 30 per cent, and Mr Spedding says he has no plans to replace two staff who are leaving. His situation is common.
"It's certainly not the idyllic image created on television," he said. "There are fewer animals to treat and if agriculture goes into complete meltdown then farm animal practices will not be viable."
The situation is as dire in Scotland. David Fotheringham, a vet in Strichen, Aberdeenshire, has also seen his turnover fall dramatically. His staff numbers have dropped from five to three and he makes half as many visits as he did two years ago.
"There is no more money for farmers to come out of the system," he said. "They are having to pay accountants and bankers and there is no money left for us. The only way of surviving is for practices to club together but that means a farm could be miles away from a vet."
Richard Sibley, secretary of the British Cattle Veterinary Association, said Herriot's image of the prosperous vet has been detrimental to the profession. "That effect has gone sour," he said. "It will be difficult to get sympathy for vets because most people believe they are rich. But they have to put a lot of money into practices and the biggest cost to vets is staff."
Keith Baker, president of the British Veterinary Association, said vets will have to diversify to survive and must develop an animal management role instead of relying on fees from disease treatment.
"This includes going into small veterinary work and also giving advice to the farmer on long-term issues such as fertility of its animals," he said. "Instead of just relying on `fire-fighting' calls, they would have an income from making regular visits once a month to advise the farmer on his strategy for the herd."Reuse content