Experts assess gaps in northern animal care

Researchers and veterinarians have met online to study how the NWT can better care for its animals despite the pandemic limiting access to experienced professionals.

The territory typically welcomes students and volunteer veterinarians from the south each summer, visiting smaller communities to offer animal care and support.

But Covid-19 shut that down, leaving only a small number of residents who possess the skills to provide those services.


Last month, an online summit explored that challenge and others facing people caring for northern animals.

Regular access to qualified veterinarians remains the biggest hurdle, the summit heard.

“Many remote communities in the three territories still have little to no access to veterinary care,” said researcher Julia Bland.

Thirty-four communities across the North never have access to those services, according to research presented at the summit by Bland and Dr John VanLeeuwen.

More generally, communities are reliant on occasional access to services like vaccinations, parasite control, and minor surgeries like spay and neuter operations.


Among other barriers is funding. Summit attendees said they would work toward more collaboration in future, potentially bringing down costs.

‘Everyone’s problem, nobody’s responsibility’

Dr Michelle Tuma, a Yellowknife-based veterinarian, has travelled to more than 20 NWT and Nunavut communities in the past five years.

She operates a mobile clinic, hauling about 500 lb of equipment each time she travels.

Michelle Tuma in a supplied photo
Michelle Tuma in a supplied photo.

As an example, Tuma’s trip to Cambridge Bay last week involved approximately 150 appointments in three days.


“In communities where we haven’t seen a presence for a very long time, or I’ve only done one or two clinics, then we still need to show them we can build trust,” Tuma said, “and they can trust us with their animals.”

In communities without their own clinic, telehealth options like GoFetch are providing an alternative. Pet owners can talk to a vet by phone for advice.

Often, that’s the only option in remote communities where travelling to a clinic is prohibitively expensive.

Dr Susan Kutz, a researcher at the University of Calgary, said: “It’s not a matter of people neglecting their animals most of the time, it’s just a matter of not having access to that healthcare.”

No access to vets means no access to spay or neuter services, so more unwanted litters end up being born – creating the separate, significant problem of stray dogs.

Kutz said the lack of any government agency with specific responsibility for stray dogs made it hard for communities, or travelling vets, to know what to do with them.

For more than a decade, she has brought students to the NWT’s Sahtu to help provide animal care and learn more about northern challenges and their consequences.

Students “get a new perspective on some of the issues and opportunities around dog health and welfare, and how that links to community health,” she said.

Monique Charron, executive director of Veterinarians Without Borders – a sponsor of the summit – said she hopes the Canadian charity can expand its volunteer work in the North.

“Canadian veterinarians are very interested in being involved in the North. For us to be into more remote communities, that’s really our goal,” she said.