ODA State Veterinarian Ryan Scholz checks a chicken.

New ODA State Veterinarian Ryan Scholz graduated from CCVM in 2011. 

Nov. 18, 2020
By Jens Odegaard

When you think of livestock, you’re probably imagining cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. The protection of Oregon's livestock is on the shoulders of Dr. Ryan Scholz. He was appointed Oregon Department of Agriculture state veterinarian on Nov. 2.

But it’s not just the more than 1.5 million cattle, sheep, goats and pigs in the state that he’s responsible for. He’s responsible for all livestock in Oregon, and, “the definition of livestock essentially covers any non-fish vertebrate that’s owned,” Scholz said. Think chickens, waterfowl and, yes, even your furry four-legged family members.

It’s a perfect role for Scholz. He graduated from Oregon State University with a doctorate of veterinary medicine (‘11) and a master’s of public health in epidemiology (’16) with hopes of working in the public sector. “Pretty much from the start of vet school, I had always been interested in public practice,” he said. “I enjoyed the food animal side, but the rest of it, the clinic work, never really caught my attention much.”  

Following graduation with his veterinary degree, Scholz went into private practice first in Mill City and then in Madras, Oregon as a stopgap. He was finishing his public health studies and waiting for an opportunity to open up with either the USDA (where he’d interned in vet school) or the ODA. It took a couple of years, but then “the stars aligned,” he said.

Scholz called the ODA to report a disease he thought he might be seeing. “The conversation just kind of snowballed,” he said. “My master’s is in epidemiology, mainly disease surveillance, so we kind of started talking about that and one thing led to the next and worked out really well.”

In Oregon, two district veterinarians report to the state veterinarian, one for Western Oregon and one for Eastern Oregon. When Scholz called, budget had just come through to fill the vacant western district position. Scholz joined the ODA in that role in Dec. 2012.

As first a district vet and now as state veterinarian, his primary responsibility is to prevent and track diseases in livestock. He and his team of two district vets, three lab technicians and a couple of office staff work with practicing veterinarians across the state. “We're there to support the practicing vets in dealing with diseases that are high consequence to animals or high consequence to humans. And the flip side of that is the prevention side.”

This support involves implementing regulations for things like certificates of veterinary inspection, livestock identification and tracking and quarantines of infected animals. It involves communication to the veterinary and livestock owner communities about potential dangers and prevention strategies. And it involves on-call support when a disease or potential disease outbreak crops up.

“There were five different cases reported just last week that we worked with that kind of ran the gamut,” Scholz said. One of them in Clackamas County involved “some horses that were dying. And the private vet was running that case, but he needed some assistance with diagnostics, research and making sure the animals didn’t move,” Scholz said. “There were some interpersonal dynamics at play within the barn as there often are.” Some owners wanted to move animals that may have been exposed. But Scholz and his team were able to step in and issue a quarantine to prevent the spread of the disease — something only the state vet can do.

Another case involved a veterinarian in Southern Oregon who was concerned about a possible rabies case. “The owner was kind of at a point where that horse was likely going to have to be euthanized no matter what,” Scholz said. “The owner didn’t have the funds to pay for additional diagnostic testing, but at the same time, the vet was concerned that she had been potentially exposed. And so we worked with public health to get that sample tested.”

This work with the Oregon Health Authority, which handles the human side of disease prevention and tracking, is critical. Scholz works with his counterpart, Dr. Emilio DeBess, the OHA’s state public health veterinarian. They provide a one-two punch on diseases like rabies that can transmit between animals and humans. “We're worried about the diseases moving within the animal population. Our job is to stop them within the animals before they have the chance to move to people,” Scholz said. “Dr. DeBess’ job is to stop them at that midpoint, essentially, the crossover between [humans and animals].”

In recent months, one area of crossover has been in communicating about SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans.

Scholz and his team have been monitoring for it in production animal populations and working with industry groups to communicate any potential risks to employees either of contracting the virus or alternatively spreading it to the animal populations they care for. Additionally, they’ve been keeping an eye out for it in companion animals. “It’s definitely been a big one on our radar,” he said.    

Scholz also tag teams with Dr. Colin Gillin, state wildlife veterinarian, who’s responsible for diseases in the state’s non-livestock animals. “He's worried about many of the same diseases. Rabbit hemorrhagic disease is a great example. We're both terrified of that disease making it into rabbits,” Scholz said. “His role is keeping it out of the wild rabbits. My role is keeping it out of domestic rabbits.”

Moving forward in his role protecting livestock, Scholz anticipates that “the next couple of years are going to be really interesting.” The USDA and industry counterparts are moving to improve livestock traceability. There’s also a new national disease reporting framework in the works from the USDA. Scholz and his team will be working on how to implement both of these issues from the state level.  

Additionally, the Oregon Legislature recently enacted a state meat inspection program to certify local butcher shops. “It's going to be a big lift for our agency. My position and then our field vets will be very involved in that because we'll be the ones doing the determinations on those just as the USDA does the determination on federally inspected plants,” Scholz said. He’s excited about the program because it will “equip our producers to have inspected products produced at their local butcher shop,” which can do custom work that’s not usually available from a large USDA inspected shop.

As state veterinarian, Scholz hopes to serve the people of Oregon by providing easy-to-use processes and technology for projects like these. At the end of the day “it’s about supporting our producers and our veterinarians,” Scholz said.