Veterinary Care in a Crisis
Veterinary Care in a Crisis
Veterinary care is headed in a crisis. This includes veterinary care for companion animal, food animal, and the equine sectors as practices are facing many difficulties as they try to meet the increase for demand of services for their clients.
Why is This a Crisis?
“While Ontario now has more pets and pet owners, it doesn’t have more vets1.”
This is having an impact on patient care at veterinary clinics across the entire country. While this has been an ongoing issue and the pandemic has not caused it, it has certainly played a role in highlighting the ongoing crisis.
With many studies observing pet ownership and demographics, we have a veterinary shortage. Canadian Veterinarian schools are currently meeting the demand for veterinarians that are retiring, with new graduates; but it is not going to reach the increased demand. We are at a deficit. The prediction is that this is going to be a problem until 2040.
How Did This Happen?
What’s causing the veterinary shortage?
The elements that influence demand for veterinary services vary by species. Though, they are more similar for companion animal and equine than for food animal.
For companion animal and equine, these primary factors influencing veterinary service demand include:
- Population/household growth
- Animal population
- Disposable income
For Food animals: the primary factors influencing veterinary service demand include:
- Number of operations/decision-makers
- Value of animals
Pre-COVID, the population growth with pet owners strongly bonded to their pets demanding better for their animals contributed to an increasingly high demand for companion animal veterinary services.
According to the CVMA workforce study (2020), “demand for veterinary services currently exceeds or will soon exceed capacity at a national level” – Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, 2020
Half of the clinics surveyed want to hire a veterinarian, while half want to hire a new veterinary technician. The average hiring needs require 1.4 veterinarians and 1.8 veterinary technicians to meet the demand, while open hiring positions take more than 6 months to fill. This is a veterinary supply crisis as characterized by the study. However, this has been ongoing since 2017, pre-pandemic world.
The modern pet owner is better informed and wants what is best for their animal, and this has been a gradual shift in how we interpret our relationship and bond with pets. This has put our expectations higher, with animals residing in our home, they are often seen as family. As veterinary medicine advances, pets are also living longer.
Not only have caseloads increased, but the nature of these visits have changed.
This not only has affected emergency veterinary care, but finding a general practicing veterinarian can be challenging too, as many clinics are not accepting new patients.
While the appointments themselves take longer now due to the COVID protocols set in place by the CVO, the demand for veterinary services has been growing for several years preceding the pandemic. Veterinary healthcare teams have been feeling the pinch as they have been stretched to their limits according to the results of the 2020 study by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.
The demand for veterinary services has or will soon exceed capacity in most parts of Canada as confirmed by the study. Traditionally, not only are remote and rural areas affected in Ontario, but there is a province-wide veterinary shortage that even covers the Greater Toronto Area, and Northern Ontario, as well.
Several countries around the world report an increased demand for veterinarians and veterinary technicians.
“We are open, but…”
“We are not doing routine appointments at this time.”
“Monday-Friday 8:30 am to 5:00 pm”
The survey results confirm that companion animal veterinarians are stretching their capacity to meet increased demand.
- There is broad recognition of the shortage of veterinarians/ veterinary technicians as an issue faced by the veterinary profession, especially in Quebec.
- About half of clinics indicating >80% of appointments were booked, especially in Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Quebec.
- Almost 1-in-5 clinics have scaled back hours of operation due to a shortage of veterinarians to fill shifts, especially in Quebec.
- Almost 1-in-5 clinics report “frequently” turning patients away, especially in Quebec, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia.
- Half of the clinics are looking to hire a new veterinarian, and half are looking to hire a new veterinary technician, with the average looking to hire 1.4 veterinarians and 1.8 veterinary technicians. Many veterinarians indicate open positions take more than 6 months to fill. The likelihood to have an open position is highest in Quebec and Saskatchewan. It is important to note, however, that only 7% of those with open positions indicate new hires would only be needed to keep up with current demand. The vast majority would need new hires to also increase patients in order to keep busy.
- Nearly all clinics indicate wait times for wellness exams or non-emergency farm calls are within a week.
There was substantial evidence to support CVMA’s original hypothesis that demand for veterinary services currently exceeds or will soon exceed capacity at a national level prior to COVID-19. Areas, specifically Quebec, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan, are showing acute signs of stretched or exceeded capacity. The additional shortage of veterinary technicians further exacerbates the need for veterinarians.
What does this mean?
- Harder to find care for your pets
- Emergency care is overtaxed
- Sometimes there are no cages or stalls available; no care in a timely manner
- Burnout and compassion fatigue
It’s important to recognize there are stressors on both sides of the veterinary world, for both the veterinary professional and client. Please, be kind!
Particularly affected are emergency services:
“We will see sick patients and emergencies as staffing permits.”
“For after hours care you will be directed to SmartVet, and a Veterinary Virtual Care Provider who will then determine if your pet needs to be seen.”
“In the event of an emergency and our office is closed, please contact: …
Emergency hours 24/7/365 operates as Temporarily by referral only
“Our Emergency Department is open 24/7 but temporarily operating by referral only so we can see as many of the most critical cases possible. Please contact your primary care veterinarian before coming to the hospital.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on every single profession, and the veterinary industry is no exception. Veterinary and emergency clinics are now extremely overburdened for a number of reasons as public health precautions are integrated into pet care protocols. Wait times exceeding 36 hours for non-urgent cases may be the result at times. A lack of access to care for pets could be the consequence, and this can be scary when waiting within the queue with a sick animal.
We are also very limited when it comes to veterinary specialists for pocket pets and exotics. As of December 2021, the Ontario Veterinary College made the hard decision to close service for birds and exotic pets due to budget constraints and will be discontinued as of August 6, 2022 . (How the Avian and Exotics Service is available to provide veterinary care). This is a specialized department providing care including reptiles, amphibians and small mammals like ferrets, hedgehogs, rabbits, and guinea pigs; as well as a closure in clinical teaching- the Avian and Exotic rotation. These pets deserve dignified and respectful care as well. There are already limited specialists on hand and a full closure of program means general practitioners are without complete training in exotics.
Practice focus by species – lack of data
What’s Being Done about the Veterinary Field Crisis?
There is a strong need for the professional veterinary organizations, veterinary colleges, and the provincial and federal governments to amalgamate in their efforts. Canadian Veterinarian schools are currently meeting the demand for veterinarians that are retiring, with new graduates, but it is not going to reach the increased demand. We are at a deficit. Expanding class sizes is needed. However, this is no easy task. The five Canadian veterinary colleges turn out approximately only 350 graduates a year; about 120 of those spots are enrolled at OVC. This number has not changed in 15 years. The additional enrollment is a financial difficulty that is needed by the provincial government to alleviate. Educating veterinarians costs more than educating students as in human medicine, it is a taxpayer-funded health-care system where human doctors are trained.
• Grow the Canadian veterinarian population at an annual rate of 3.5–4.0% is needed.
• internationally trained veterinarians can be a source of growth.
• Also address the shortage of veterinary technicians.
Regulatory roles within the veterinary practice. For example, utilizing what more can the veterinary technician perform (Veterinary technician practitioner role, a role equivalent to the nurse practitioner role in human medicine to take on wellness care.).
Overworked and burnout, and the pandemic has highlighted a need for work-life balance.
Telehealth and Telemedicine to Triage
- Vetster is 24/7 on demand online veterinary virtual appointments. Search by location, availability, species, vet profile, treatment and more. Connect with a licensed veterinarian in minutes from the comfort of your own home.
Quebec is experiencing the greatest degree of veterinary resources and capacity being stretched countrywide. They face more challenges due to the sizable pet population, robust food animal sector, and official bilingual province. International schools are proposed.
The lack of access to veterinary care in remote areas carries no easy solution, nor cost effective methods. This service gap requires the desire and ambition of the professional.
How Long Are We Going to Be Stuck In This Shortage?
With the current demographic and pet trends, according to the CVMA Spring 2020 Canada-wide workforce study (full study available to members only via the CVMA website). The study demonstrated that the demand for veterinary services will outpace the supply of veterinarians by 2040. However, others are arguing we are in a full crisis now.
What can you do as a pet owner?
Schedule your pet’s wellness appointments, prescriptions, and medications well in advance.
Avoid situations that might result in an emergency visit.
I would like to thank our team at OVC for always providing such compassionate, prompt care in these trying times. To have the availability and access to the most innovative care for such a complicated case we are, I am forever grateful for.
Danielle & Sheepdog Riggs
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