Faltering public support for veterinary training could contribute to a pending shortage of qualified animal care doctors, according to a new report from the National Academy of Sciences.

The report observed state funding for veterinary schools had, like other areas of higher education, fallen during the economic downturn. That has in turn resulted in higher tuition for those training to be veterinarians. The Association of American Veterinary Medicine Colleges reported in January that tuition at veterinary schools had almost doubled in the last 10 years. State support has been slashed by $104 million in the last two years, according to that study.

Another set of figures from the National Academy of Sciences also demonstrated the problem: starting salaries for veterinarians range from $40,000 to $70,000, but average student loan debt has risen to more than $140,000.

"This could lead to a decline in the quality of applicants to veterinary school," the authors wrote in a brief outlining their findings. "The veterinary medicine profession will need to convince the public of the value of funding veterinary medicine training in state and federal budgets."

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Labor has predicted a 36 percent increase in employment for veterinarians from 2010 to 2020.

Renewed public investment could also address the shifting societal needs for veterinarians, according to the report. Veterinarians in the public sector, for example, typically receive lower salaries than their corporate counterparts, which drives down the potential candidate pool for public veterinarians. The American Veterinary Medicine Association's 2011 market research found that industry veterinarians made $148,000 annually, compared to $103,000 for state and local government employees. There were also more than twice as many industry veterinarians as state and local practitioners.

Yet, the need for public animal care specialists remains high, the authors noted, and they play a critical role in a variety of public health issues, such as monitoring food safety and animal-transmitted diseases. State and local governments should therefore evaluate their plans for recruiting and retaining quality veterinarians, the authors urged.