The family doctor shortage might be grabbing all the headlines these days, but the crisis in veterinary medicine is also dire and might be even tougher to remedy.
In some areas, especially rural communities like Pictou County and Cape Breton, veterinary clinics aren’t taking new clients. Some are so busy they aren’t bothering with waitlists. Wait times for routine appointments for those who have a vet can now take months instead of weeks.
Just as in regular medicine, the problem has been building for years. A large number of doctors are reaching retirement age and not enough new ones are graduating to fill those empty positions.
But COVID exacerbated the situation for vets as people stuck at home opted to bring home pandemic puppies and other pets by the thousands.
“Cape Breton and Yarmouth are really struggling for veterinary care,” said Dr. Kyla Wuhr, a veterinarian at the Nova Scotia SPCA Veterinary Hospital in Dartmouth. “A lot of those vet clinics just cannot accept new patients, so a lot of them are being referred to us.”
Wuhr expects the situation to get worse as not enough new vets and vet techs are graduating to replace those retiring or otherwise leaving the profession.
“It could continue to be a problem even to a point where some people, if they don’t have a ton of resources and there’s not a local vet available, there’s nothing they can do but surrender their pet because they can’t provide the care the animal needs,” she said. “It’s alarming.”
In Pictou County, people with pets are facing long wait times and many with new dogs or cats are being urged to go to Truro or Halifax to find care.
One vet who retired in the autumn after 36 years in the profession in New Glasgow and Pictou returned to work recently because of severe staffing shortages.
Health consultant Mary Jane Hampton said the increased demand is only adding to what already were stressful working conditions and lead more vets to quit, further exacerbating the crisis.
“The profession was already in trouble even before the pandemic with such a high rate of depression and work stress that was really pushing people out of the profession,” she said. “Then you layer on top of that the thousands of people that got pets that they didn’t have before and the new people coming to the province on top of that. It has been a perfect storm.”
A 2020 study researchers at the Ontario Veterinary College conducted found that 26 per cent of Canadian veterinarians have experienced suicidal thoughts within the past year. The rate is more than double the 12 per cent for Canadians in general.
At the root of the higher rates of depression and suicide might be the business model for vet clinics. Typically, it’s pay for service, unlike regular medicine’s universal health care. Many pet owners are opting to get insurance, but it doesn’t cover everything.
“When there are things that could be done for a pet, but the owner simply doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to do it, it’s either suffering or early euthanasia,” said Hampton. “Vets get into the profession because they love animals and they get hit with those really awful choices and need to execute the decision, literally. That’s cumulative.”
Few vets would be immune to such stress in a profession that pays around $75,000 a year on average in Nova Scotia.
“On top of that is what appears to be an increasingly hostile public that accuses vets of being in it for the money and not having compassion and saying, ‘Why can’t you do this for free? Why does it cost so much?’” said Hampton.
Putting a spotlight on the abuse, the New Glasgow Veterinary Clinic posted a notice on Facebook last summer saying aggressive behaviour won’t be tolerated.
“I can’t believe that we have to address this issue again!” the post said. “Aggressive behaviour is more than physical altercations and includes verbal assault and harassment, abusive behaviour and threats. New Glasgow Veterinary Clinic and Pictou Veterinary Clinic have a zero tolerance policy for all forms of human aggression. Such behaviour toward any of our exceptional and hard-working staff will result in termination of services. Enough is enough!”
To help alleviate the crisis, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association is trying to ease the path for immigrants to be able to practice veterinary medicine and is urging the provinces to add funding for additional seats at veterinary colleges.
“It’s all the same issues as with people doctors,” said Hampton. “But the animal doctor one may even be a bigger problem for an even longer period of time because we need such a runway to solve it.”
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