What we can do to address the shortage of large-animal vets

More spots in veterinary schools and more support for new grads would go a long way

After talking with large-animal veterinarians, observing the number of ads for large-animal veterinarians, and taking part in a job fair at the University of Calgary’s vet school, it’s clear that there is getting to be a real shortage of veterinarians wanting to do either mixed- or large-animal practice in Western Canada.

But strategies are starting to be developed for long-term solutions to this dilemma.

During a recent large-animal veterinary conference, I talked to many young veterinarians who graduated five or so years ago. It was not surprising that younger registrants at the conference were about 75 to 80 per cent women, as this reflects the percentage of women who are accepted into veterinary schools (in both small-animal and large-animal fields of study).

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But it was surprising to learn how many of our homegrown talent went to veterinary schools in other parts of the world to further their education. To me it is great to see the education they are getting abroad and also that they are coming back home to Canada to practise. But it is a very costly venture to attend a foreign veterinary school, and there is a big push to increase the number of places in veterinary schools in Canada to keep up with the demand. A form of streaming of students may be looked at and the veterinary school at Saint-Hyacinthe in Quebec is making this a reality with seats designated for large-animal practitioners.

The Alberta government is in the midst of changing its funding for spots (called ‘seats’) in veterinary colleges. That change will see it fund 20 more seats at University of Calgary Veterinary Medicine (for a total of 50) while phasing out funding for 20 seats at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon. But that means those 20 seats in Saskatoon will be open to others. This normally might be open to foreign graduates (usually for a higher fee), as the seats would not be subsidized by the respective provincial financial coffers. But the other provinces can fund additional seats. We have lots of local talent who want to get into veterinary college but there are only so many seats. (There are about six applicants for every spot available.)

One might wonder why there is an increased need for more large-animal vets when the actual numbers of livestock, especially cattle, have gone down since the BSE crisis.

But veterinarians are needed more than ever because there are more preventive programs, regulatory and record-keeping requirements, and food safety and animal welfare protocols as well as the need to increase productivity. As well, more emphasis is being placed on the one-health model and the crossover between human and veterinary health (ecosystem and public health). The need for individual animal medicine has also increased as the value of livestock increased and our ability to diagnose, treat and rehabilitate increased. For example, owners of larger herds generally do more of the preventive management procedures and look for ways to improve reproductive levels. Animal welfare both in handling and treatments have increased veterinary involvement much more than in the past. Finally, other species such as bison, elk, or traditional ones such as sheep and goats are increasing in numbers. All this leads to increased demand for large-animal veterinarians.

So what can you do as producers, producer groups, community pasture groups, cattle associations, feed mills or veterinary clinics?

We probably need to change our long-term focus. On an individual basis, using your local veterinary clinic for regular work and emergency work and having a very good working relationship encourages expansion and the need for more veterinarians. As a result, clinics expand and can work co-operatively together.

We also need to push for more seats in veterinary schools and for a streamed-type program on some of the seats so that more students with an interest in large animals can get in. These may be students from the country but I have seen several young veterinarians who have grown up in a city and love to work with large animals. This needs to be encouraged.

Mentoring of young veterinarians is key to retention at clinics. If we can teach, supervise, and be available on the phone to our younger inexperienced large-animal vets, they can avoid some of those tough situations or outcomes. And that goes a long ways to retaining veterinarians.

The model of the mixed-animal practices will change with larger practices covering larger areas with even better haul-in facilities. The scope of practice with specialized large-animal technicians taking on a bigger role regarding BSE testing, performing autopsies or when assisting veterinarians with procedures such as semen testing bulls are definitely sped up. This all helps with a veterinarian’s output in a day. There may be programs started (as they have done in human medicine) that provide for grants for those committing to practise in a rural setting.

We all know country living and working in the outdoors with producers can be a fulfilling career. We all just need to get veterinarians into the clinics, and then mentor and support them properly, have a shared on-call program, utilize good haul-in facilities where possible, and make them part of the community.

Let’s all work to make this happen and show the government the need for having more seats in vet schools. Encourage any young keen students you know — especially those with an interest in the agricultural sector — to consider large-animal medicine as a career choice.

They won’t be disappointed. I know I wasn’t.

About the author

Contributor

Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.

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