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Health

The Canadian Veterinarian Shortage

Val Cairney February 17, 2023 139


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The Great Canadian Veterinarian Shortage

Hi everyone and thank you for joining me on this episode of Val Talk’s Pets. 

Well we all know that our veterinarians are a vital part of our pet’s health.  Sometimes we never need to see the vet more than once a year or even longer in some cases.  Sometimes we find ourselves at the vet office on a regular basis when we have a pet with an issue that needs routine monitoring or care.  Either way having our pets registered as a patient at a vet office is important because just like us, we don’t want to be scrambling for care or with our pets to find a vet when we really need one or paying top dollar to go to an emergency care clinic when our family vet could have easily dealt with the issue.  But, in Canada right now there is a serious veterinarian shortage. 

I listened recently to an interview with Dr. Trevor Lawson, president elect of the CVMA, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, and he said that 1 in 5 veterinary clinics have had to cut hours of operation due to a lack of vets.  According to macleans.ca, Mississauga Ontario’s Clarkson Village Animal Hospital was a 24 hour clinic.  Recently, short of staff, it cut its hours to 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. In Penticton, B.C., a pet advocate addressed city council to plead for vet care.  What is going on?  According to macleans.ca, “every year more vets retire than graduate, and while creating more spaces in veterinary schools seems an obvious fix, most provincial governments won’t pay”. 

As we know, COVID created a huge acquisition of pets.  Pet acquisition had been up before COVID but the pandemic put it through the roof.  The demand for vet care rose tremendously and with COVID protocols in place, care time was taking 3 times longer to see a pet and then speak to the pet parent by phone who was sitting outside in their car.  I myself went through this several times as we had to take Esme to the vet for her antibiotics, hand her off to a tech, wait in the car for the vet to phone and then meet her at the door to be handed back off to me and pay at the door.  It was a process but that was the protocol in place so that’s what I did.  Doing this with every patient really cut back on how many pets one vet could see in a day.  And when I did actually get to in person care with the vet, my vet told me that he was swamped with all kinds of new puppies and pets and his regular clientele. 

So, it would seem logical that a clinic that is busy would just reach out and hire another vet or vets.  Yes, it sounds logical, but in practice, it’s not so easy.  So, listen to this from macleans.ca. 

“The supply of vets, though, has remained flat for years.  Canada’s five colleges of veterinary medicine turn out about 350 grads annually-not nearly enough.”  “The Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown [PEI] opened in 1986 with room for 40 students per year from Atlantic Canada.  Today it has 42 such spaces, and rejects up to six qualified applicants for every one it accepts.  To make ends meet, the school takes in an additional 26 students from other countries each year (up from 10 in 1986), who pay $69,000.00 per year, compared to $13,800.00 a year for Canadians.  If they can afford it, rejected Canadian students head abroad to study veterinary medicine.” 

Okay.  Now, I’m not going to politicize about what that means, however, one thing it does clearly mean, is that Canada has quite a few qualified candidates leaving the country to study elsewhere.  Dr. Lawson actually addressed this in his interview.  When asked what the CVMA is doing to help with the vet shortage crisis, one thing he said was that they were actively seeking Canadians who had done just that, gone abroad to study, to come back home to practice.   As maclean.ca continues to point out, “Trouble is, expanding vet schools is costly.  Dr. Jeffrey Witchtel, Dean of the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, Ontario, says that for universities, educating vets costs more than educating students in any other field.”  Now, they also speculate that one solution to the shortage is that, “vets can give more work and better pay to veterinary technologists, who, after two years of training, often start at $20.00 to $22.00 an hour.”  Big sigh!  All too common a story these days isn’t it?  

So, as Ottawa.citynews.ca points out, “The factors into the current shortage include vets reducing the number of hours to avoid being overworked, many leaving the field in general, and the influx of people getting pets during the pandemic.”  We were so used to calling our vet and getting an appointment the next day or even that afternoon.  Now, we are waiting up to three weeks in some cases to see the vet.  Having said that, I do find that if there is an acute situation or emergency the clinic will respond immediately.  But, I needed to take our store cat to the vet for an issue and it was a two week wait before I got an appointment.  That sounds like me trying to see the doctor!!  

The other side of this vet shortage which is not being brought to the forefront as much as it should be is large animal practice.  Farmers with livestock are really feeling the pinch because they are double whammied because one of the critical vet shortage areas is in the rural communities.  Farmersforum.com released an article in Sept. of 2022, so this past fall, about the shortage of veterinarians affecting their way of dealing with livestock.  The article points out that farmers often take care of many medical issues with their livestock but there are times when a large animal vet is required for emergencies. 

In an interview for Farmer’s Forum, Godfrey Tyler, an experienced livestock farmer in Haliburton, Ontario, who shudders at the thought of being faced with an emergency says, “I don’t know, I’ll probably have to shoot animals.”  “How do you say that to people?”   The article states that “Before 2021, Haliburton-area farmers had a local vet, who could attend to local emergency calls.  But at the start of 2021 Dr. Aimee Coysh Filion suspended offering on-call services to big animals and limited her practice to in-house visits.  One of her colleagues was leaving the clinic to return to Ireland, meaning the clinic couldn’t continue to serve farmers.” 

It seems that not many vets are interested in mixed practice large and small and on-call is not enticing.  I watched an episode of The Incredible Dr. Pol the other day, and out went Dr. Pol to a dairy farm to deal with an issue while his dinner went back into the oven to stay warm.  He said it was important to him to make sure that the livestock farmers stay farming as these guys are the reason he is in business.  How poignant a perspective when we look at what is happening now. 

In Haliburton there is the Northern Producer Animal Health Network.  This network is monitoring Haliburton County’s vet shortage.  The Farmers Forum explains that, “The network oversees the Veterinary Assistance Program, which since 1945 gives extra compensation to vets for providing their services to rural farmers in Northern Ontario regions.  The service now provides vets $1.20 per kilometer they travel to attend a farm for an emergency call.  This makes vet services more affordable to farmers, as they only have to pay for the service, and not additional mileage fees.  Godfrey Tyler said he knows vets in Lindsay and Bracebridge who could, theoretically make the trip to his farm, if needed, but they would charge about $250.00 “before (they) start”.  Then they could charge $2.00 to $3.00 per kilometre as a mileage expense because they are not part of the Veterinary Assistance Program.”  The rest of the article is heartbreaking. 

It seems like livestock farmers are between a rock and a hard place.  The financial implications are tremendous, but I keep thinking how gut wrenching it must be to be in the position of watching one of your own large animals, livestock or not, suffering to the point of having to end the situation at your own hands, knowing that if one person with the training and knowledge would just separate money from vocation in emergencies, so many animals would not be forced to suffer.  

One thing that Dr. Lawson strongly suggested in his interview with CTV Your Morning is that “Being very proactive on planning for preventative care [being] absolutely critical…”, result[ing] in fewer emergencies and sick animals”.   

I firmly believe that taking a proactive approach with our pet’s health and well-being is the way to go.  We need to think about all the things we can do to mitigate extra vet visits not only to ease the financial stress but also because as we can see now, getting to the vet may be a two week wait.  So, my next episode will be dedicated to going over what preventive care for our pets is all about. 

In the meantime the vet shortage in Canada is being considered a crisis.  Should we be concerned?  Absolutely.  For me, I want to know that when I need advice and a diagnosis for my pet, I am talking with someone who has worked hard in vet school, dedicated themselves to the profession and is passionate about animals.  I feel particularly concerned about the situation with large animals.  The crisis with farm animal vet care really is concerning.  I can’t imagine how helpless many farmers are feeling knowing that there just isn’t anyone to help them or if there is they will be charged an arm and a leg.  Which as we know will eventually drive prices up for consumers. 

I’m sure there are some large animal vets out there that are ready to take that 3 a.m. call for help, but it seems they are becoming fewer and farther between.  I guess being the next James Herriot isn’t enticing anymore.  That means that the government and associations have to make it enticing and veterinary colleges have to increase large animal education and practice.  The only way they can do that is through increased funding by the government.  How do we get the powers that be to realize how important it is to make animal care one of the priorities?  So many questions really surround this issue.  In the meantime, make sure you know what hours your vet clinic is keeping these days and maybe encourage your children to look into the sciences.  Perhaps veterinarian medicine might be a calling.  And I really do mean a calling.  To be honest, I don’t want to be seeing the vet who is there because there is money to be made.  I want the vet who has always wanted to work with animals and sees helping animals before dollar signs. And I do need to say that there are those vets.  There are those vets that are experiencing burn out because of the hours they are pulling to make sure pets are cared for. And there are those vets that are actively looking to add to their clinic staff to meet demand.  

In an earlier episode I interviewed Dr. Rob Hillerby, who is a vet from Caledon Mountain Animal Hospital. Dr. Rob graciously gave up his lunch break that day, which for a busy vet meant he probably didn’t get much to eat that day.  Give it a listen to get a glimpse into the day of a vet.  Until next time, keep up the research, because as I say, knowing is caring.   

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Val Cairney

Hi everyone, and welcome to Val Talk’s Pets, the forum for pet parents and enthusiasts alike. So, I have been working in the pet industry now for almost 10 years and, on a daily basis, I handle a lot of issues and questions arising from pet parents. I am not a veterinarian but I do have certifications in Canine, Feline, Small Animal, Fish and Herptile and Avian Health and Nutrition from the University of California, Davis Extension, the Vet College.

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