Veterinarians provide services in northern communities through the Veterinarians Without Borders' Northern Animal Health Initiative. Photo: Veterinarians Without Borders
When Chelsea Francis was awoken one Sunday morning by her beloved bulldog Archie having a seizure, she called the vet’s office. They weren’t open or taking emergency calls.
Francis said she went on to call every veterinarian she could find in Yellowknife and even reached out to a clinic in High Level, Alberta, while her friend knocked on doors. No one was available.
As she waited by Archie’s side for help, he had a total of 13 seizures.
“We just had to wait and watch him go through each one and do everything we can to make sure that he was safe,” she said. “There was nothing I could do.”
Twenty-six hours later, a veterinarian was able to see Archie. Francis said he was diagnosed with epilepsy, given medication, and has since been doing better.
For Francis, who has always had dogs in her life, they are like family members. She said it would have been “devastating” if she lost Archie, who she has had since he was six weeks old.
“He is so loved and he’s so cherished,” she said.
While Francis said her experience was frustrating, she understands the small number of veterinarians in the territory are having trouble keeping up with the need for services.
“They must just be burnt out and exhausted,” she said.
Veterinarians feeling the strain
There are currently three veterinary clinics in the NWT, all based in Yellowknife. Other communities in the territory are served through travelling clinics supported by organizations like Veterinarians Without Borders and Arctic Paws.
Dana Martin, vice-president of the NWT SPCA, said demand has risen while the number of veterinarians remains largely unchanged.
Martin said that’s due in part to the Covid-19 pandemic. People have been spending more time at home with their pets and the number of new pet owners has increased.
“People are home more, so they’re seeing more,” she said. “People are bringing their dogs in for things that are pretty innocuous and normal, but they’ve [previously] been at work and not seen them.”
Citing limited capacity and an overwhelming number of cases, Yellowknife’s Great Slave Animal Hospital – which currently has two veterinarians – said in February after-hours and on-call emergency services would be suspended. Staff also no longer had time for non-urgent services like annual vaccines and general checkups, the clinic said.
“We understand that this is an enormous change, however we must call our capacity,” the animal hospital wrote in a post on its website.
“We are very short-staffed and trying to get more vets and technicians up north as soon as possible, despite a nationwide shortage.”
On April 18, the same clinic said on Facebook it could not accept new clients until demand died down.
The Great Slave Animal Hospital declined an interview with Cabin Radio, saying employees had no time to talk due to the shortage of staff.
The Yellowknife Veterinary Clinic, which has one veterinarian, simillarily told Cabin Radio it was “swamped” with demand for emergency services and had little time for an interview.
Tuma said she doesn’t have the facilities or equipment to offer emergency services but has been taking on new clients in Yellowknife with the increased demand.
In larger communities that don’t have permanent veterinary clinics, like Inuvik and Fort Simpson, Tuma said the appetite for services is great.
“Every time we go to these larger towns there’s super-high demand, waitlists for appointments and surgeries, and everybody trying to get their pets in to see the vet without having to travel,” she said.
While Tuma said the Great Slave Animal Hospital’s reduced service level was unfortunate, she praised the clinic for setting boundaries to protect staff, pointing out research has shown veterinarians are facing high rates of burnout and suicide.
“It’s good to see that they’re putting their staff first, which means putting our pets first,” she said.
Canada facing veterinary supply crisis
Across Canada, veterinarians are reportedly stretching their thin resources to meet increasing demand.
A 2020 report from the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association found there aren’t enough veterinarians and veterinary technicians to meet the country’s needs, particularly in isolated communities and regions.
According to that report, almost one in five clinics reported having to frequently turn patients away. Half said they were looking to hire new staff. Meanwhile, students are graduating from Canadian veterinary colleges at a rate that only equals the number retiring from the profession.
Dr Louis Kwantes, a veterinarian in Edmonton and president of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, told Cabin Radio Canada’s veterinary workforce needs to increase by around 50 percent over the next 10 years to meet demand.
Kwante said higher demand and more attrition had “made the supply and demand kind-of out of whack.”
“We do hear more and more stories across Canada about veterinary clinics that have to shorten their hours, or emergency clinics that aren’t able to take patients, longer wait times, more difficulty making appointments and so forth,” he said.
Kwantes said the increased workload is leading to more stress and mental health challenges.
“When you’re dealing with sick animals that people love, when you’re dealing with cases sometimes where you have to put animals to sleep, that’s emotionally trying,” he said.
“When you’re dealing with medical issues, you want to be at your best. When you’re tired and overwhelmed, then the risk of having errors also goes up.”
Some provinces have recently made efforts to increase the number of veterinary graduates.
In its latest budget, the Alberta government earmarked $59 million to expand the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program at the Univerity of Calgary. In British Columbia, the province this month pledged to double the number of subsidized seats at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine.
Kwantes said the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association plans to hold a national veterinary workforce congress in June to discuss the issue and identify potential solutions.