‘A high emotional toll’: Why Ontario veterinarians are under pressure

The province now has more pets, but it doesn’t have more vets — and that’s creating challenges for professionals and animal owners alike
By Diane Peters - Published on Nov 16, 2021
Ontario Veterinary College students treat clients during clinical rotations. (Courtesy of the Ontario Veterinary College)

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Barb Novak considers herself lucky to have a caring and reliable veterinarian for her three dogs. “I feel bad for the people who are needing a vet and cannot get one,” says Novak, who lives in Thunder Bay and knows of pet owners who drive four hours to Dryden for care or who simply cannot find a vet at all. “I don’t even want to think about what Bailey” — her nine-year-old Shih Tzu-terrier mix — “would have had to go through if I didn’t have a vet.”

Thunder Bay, population about 110,000, has 23 vets who are active, in private practice, and registered with the College of Veterinarians of Ontario. The city also limited advanced-testing equipment for animals. When Bailey developed a growth on her neck last spring, Novak’s vet had to arrange for other options, as there were no local surgeons able to do the kind of procedure her dog needed. Novak could have had the dog computed-tomography scanned in nearby Winnipeg, but the surgery would have taken place in Saskatchewan.

small dog next to small stuffed dog
Bailey is a nine-year-old Shih Tzu-terrier mix. (Barb Novak)

Novak decided instead to head south: in March, she and her son drove for two days (overnighting in Sault Ste. Marie) to get Bailey a scan in Toronto — and then to have what proved to be a cancerous thyroid tumour removed. All told, the $6,000 surgery ended up costing the family $8,000 and three weeks off work (two of them in quarantine). 

Although the shortage of general and specialized animal care for pets and farm animals is especially acute in Thunder Bay and in many other northern cities and rural areas, vet offices are overbooked right across the province. Indeed, a dearth of vets and veterinary-support staff is an issue throughout Canada. A 2020 Canadian Veterinary Medical Association workplace study concluded that “companion animal veterinarians are stretching their capacity to meet increased demand.” Results indicated that vets face difficulties finding technicians and other vets to fill jobs, that more than 80 per cent of offices are fully booked, that some have to turn away new patients, and that some have cut back their hours because of staff shortages. And 31 per cent of vets work more than 45 hours a week.

“Three to five years ago, we’d see seasonality in demand — in spring and summer, we’d be really, really busy, and then it would taper off,” says Albert Wimmers, a Burlington-based vet and past president of the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association. “Now, we are going flat-out year-round.” That has vets feeling the strain. “There’s a high emotional toll this is taking on people in the vet industry,” says Wimmers. “People that are in this industry, they care a lot.”

These shortages also cause stress for pet owners who can’t get timely care. The CVO says 2020 saw a 40 per cent spike in complaints compared to the year before. Complaints to the college have historically pertained to such things as poor record-keeping, lack of communication, and sub-optimal care. “We’re in a tense time. People are a little more testy and a little less patient,” says Jan Robinson, registrar and chief executive officer of the college. Robinson notes that 2020 complaints have not been processed, so the college has not yet determined whether they have merit or relate to accessing care. However, Robinson says, “We know that access for new pet owners is a challenge right now.”

person wearing face mask bends over small dog
A November 2020 report found that 18 per cent of current pet owners in Canada had obtained a pet during the pandemic. (Courtesy of the Ontario Veterinary College)

Some suggest that the opposite was the case just a few years ago. Reports from the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2015 discovered moderate levels of unemployment, plus a desire among many vets to work more hours. Many practices then were working under capacity, a situation AVMA predicted would improve somewhat but continue to 2025. According to Jeffrey Wichtel, dean of the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, Canada was experiencing something similar at that time. “The market was flat,” he says. “When our students graduated, they were getting jobs — but not every job they wanted.”

But things changed in 2017, he says: “We started to see a real demand for vets. Our students were getting courted before they graduated. They were getting the jobs they wanted, where they wanted them, and starting salaries went up.” And pet ownership started taking off around this time: Canadian Animal Health Institute figures indicate that the country’s dog population grew from 7.6 million in 2016 to 8.3 million in 2018.

Then, during the pandemic, people scrambled to adopt. A November 2020 report from Narrative Research found that 18 per cent of current pet owners had obtained a pet during the pandemic. 

COVID-19 also increased pressure on vet offices, as they scrambled to adjust to curb-side care, more cleaning, and telemedicine. Staffing availability worsened as people dealt with quarantines, kids at home, and elder care. “Practices were the same as every other workplace, with 20 per cent of their team away at any given time,” says Wimmers.

man in green coveralls stands next to a row of cows in stalls
Jeffrey Wichtel is the dean of the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph. (Courtesy of the Ontario Veterinary College)

 Then there were the ongoing shortages of medications and pet foods. “It changes from day to day and week to week,” says Wimmers of the items that end up on back-order.

While Ontario now has more pets and pet owners, it doesn’t have more vets. The province has just one vet school, the OVC, and there are five in total across the country. Only the University of Calgary, which launched a vet school in 2005, is currently expanding its class size. “We’re just producing enough new vets to replace those that are retiring,” says Wichtel. “We’re not accounting for any growth.” As of 2020, Ontario had 5,125 licensed vets, and estimates suggest that number should increase by 4 per cent a year to better meet demand.

Other long-term trends are at play: the arrival of more animals adopted from other countries, plus climate change have led to more incidents of illnesses such as kettle cough, tick-borne Lyme disease, and canine ehrlichiosis. Two kinds of tapeworm that harm dogs have been newly found in Ontario. “You’ve got a perfect storm for access challenges,” says Robinson.

To graduate more vets in the province, Wichtel says the OVC hopes to expand enrolment beyond its usual 120 spots a year, but doing so would require additional funding from the provincial government. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Colleges and Universities says that the University of Guelph receives approximately $5.3 million annually from the province through the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance for the school’s Veterinary Capacity Program. “Veterinary and veterinary professional shortage is an international challenge,” the statement reads, “and the government has been working with stakeholders to better understand the issue in Ontario and explore solutions to improve veterinary access in underserviced areas.”

Agenda segment, July 2, 2021: The lives of pandemic pets

Wichtel also says the school is also in early talks with Lakehead University about creating a satellite school in Thunder Bay that would recruit local students, particularly Indigenous students, and equip them to practise in the region.

Many people get trained as vets overseas and then come — or return — to Canada. If they don’t attend an internationally accredited college, they must pass a series of exams to get a licence here. “Maybe we could give them a limited licence or find ways to get them through the exam process quicker,” says Wichtel. 

There’s also work underway in Ontario to update the legislation that governs veterinary professionals. Some of the proposed changes could permit a larger scope of practice for students and registered veterinary technicians. And the Ontario Association of Veterinary Technicians is in very early stage talks with provincial and national groups to eventually establish a registered-technicians-practitioner model — think nurse practitioners, but for animals.

Wimmers says the veterinary-care leadership bodies are working together to find ways to better support vet professionals now and for the long-term. “It’s a challenge,” he admits. “We’re trying to do all of this while being run off our feet.”

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