The Wheat City is experiencing a compounding issue of more families bringing home furry friends placing pressure on an animal health system already short on veterinarians.
Veterinarian Dr. Vicky Sempers, co-owner of Grand Valley Animal Clinic, said being a vet during COVID-19 has been difficult — they are increasingly busy and it has been stressful ensuring they are complying with all public health regulations.
“We’ve had an increasing demand for services,” Sempers said. “Lots of people were at home and they weren’t travelling as much — it was a perfect time for lots of people to get new puppies and kittens because they had time to spend with them, and we just saw a huge jump in the number of people wanting to come in.”
Grand Valley saw a record number of people bringing home family pets and this, in turn, is leading to an increasing demand for veterinarian services.
There are currently four full-time vets at the clinic and one part-time vet on hand to meet these demands, Sempers said.
At the beginning of 2021, they had seven full-time vets on staff.
“All the clinics in the area are, I think, finding the same thing,” Sempers said. “There is a Canada-wide shortage of veterinarians — It’s not just a Brandon thing. It’s the whole of Manitoba. Winnipeg is badly affected.”
It has always been challenging attracting vets to Brandon, and this has only become tougher in the past two years.
One of the major struggles facing Brandon in recruiting new vets is doctors can take their pick of anywhere in the country to set up a clinic.
Currently, Canadian veterinarian colleges are graduating about 350 veterinarian students each year, Sempers said, and that number just about meets the number of veterinarians retiring from the industry, leaving the sector in languishing growth.
These numbers do not account for people who want to go part-time, growing populations in the country, an increasing number of family pets or the increasing amount of disposable income in Canada, Sempers said.
The million-dollar question now, Sempers said, is figuring out how to grow the industry.
The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association and Manitoba Veterinary Medical Association (MVMA) have been aware of the shortage for several years, and they are taking steps to combat the lack of vets in the province.
Sempers said the MVMA has established an Adhoc Rural Forum Committee, which Sempers is a part of, to explore how they can recruit new vets into rural communities.
The committee is also tackling the veterinary shortage in general and is working with the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon and the Manitoba government to look for assistance in mitigating the effects of the shortage.
“But it’s not going to be a quick fix. This is a long-term problem,” Sempers said. “Vets across all parts of the veterinarian community are participating in this. Everyone is having an input because everyone has a different take on it and different ideas.”
The shortage will not be fixable in a year or two. It is a long-term problem, but they are making headway and starting to work on solutions — including pushing to graduate more vets and bringing in more foreign vets into Canada.
The hope now is that in a year or two, the situation will be a bit different.
Sempers said while the shortage is a reality veterinarians are adjusting to, all vets are doing the best they can to try to accommodate as many patients as possible.
She hopes people will bear with them and understand there may be a delay when trying to schedule routine checkups or vaccinations. If a visit is non-urgent, it may be a little bit longer of a wait for a patient to get into the clinic.
“We don’t want pets to suffer. We’re doing the best we can under the circumstances,” Sempers said.
Veterinarian Dr. Tracy Radcliffe of Brandon Hills Veterinary Clinic said her clinic is no stranger to the shortage of veterinarians.
She joined the Brandon Hills team in October 2020 after it was merged with Brandon Animal Clinic. She has been a vet in the area for 20 years.
Prior to the merger, there were three doctors at Brandon Hills and two at Brandon Animal Clinic. However, after seeing three vets at the clinics quit, the businesses were merged.
“In 20 years, I have never been this physically or mentally exhausted doing my job,” Radcliffe said. “I don’t have any time or motivation to do any exercise. I have never eaten this poorly in 20 years because it’s usually late at night. Everyone at the clinic, receptionists and techs, are kind of the same.”
She added the stress of the shortage has been compounded during COVID-19 by two major things; families bringing home new animals, and people working at home noticing a pet has a health problem sooner.
“They notice more things. We see far more animals for minor things like little lumps and ear infections and runny eyes and stuff that I’m sure we would not have seen two years ago,” Radcliffe said.
It is a puzzling situation because it remains unclear why the shortage is occurring, she said — new schools have been established and additional vets are graduating every year.
She noted Manitoba especially has always faced a hard time recruiting doctors to the province, but for the past two years, there are typically around 20 clinics in the province looking for a vet at any given time.
“I have no hope they’ll find a new one [for Brandon Hills], kind of no matter what kind of salary they are offering,” Radcliffe said.
One of the things they have struggled with at Brandon Hills during the shortage is after-hours care — the clinic can no longer offer the service during the week and is also closed every third weekend because there are only two vets. Radcliffe said they refer people to two emergency clinics in Winnipeg, but they are also overwhelmed with clients.
“That certainly has been a huge additional stress,” Radcliffe said. “I worked at the Brandon Animal Clinic for 20 years. Most of the time left when we closed at 5:30 p.m., I usually had my full lunch hour every day. That has not happened ever in the past year because you basically have five doctors worth of clients and there’s two of us to look after them.”
Sometimes they are unable to logistically see clients right away. If it is a non-emergency, animals will be waiting a minimum of at least a week for a visit to the vet. General exams and vaccines are being booked in February. In the past, it would have taken around a week to get in.
“If it’s a life-threatening emergency, we will see them that day,” Radcliffe said. “When they call and want their animals seen, we wish that we could see it, but there literally is not time to see it.”
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Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun