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West Shore vet clinic pauses emergency service as industry faces labour shortage

Vet clinics across Canada are facing a shortage of veterinarians and registered veterinary technicians as new graduates fail to keep pace with retirements
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Registered veterinary technologist Fiona Ely with 12-year-old chihuahua Jimmy Choo at WAVES veterinary clinic, which says it will focus on specialty services such as orthopedics and surgery until it has rebuilt its emergency team. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

The temporary closure of a West Shore emergency veterinary clinic is a sign of an industry in the throes of an ongoing labour crisis, industry experts say.

The Langford-based West Coast Animal Veterinary Emergency Specialty Hospital paused emergency services as of Sept. 1, announcing it would focus strictly on specialty services such as orthopedics and surgery until it has rebuilt its emergency team.

WAVES opened less than a year before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated the existing vet shortage and led to more people acquiring pets, said Erinne Branter, a founding member and head of internal medicine for the clinic. The clinic was forced to lean heavily on locum vets and part-time staffing to stay open.

“It’s kind of a perfect storm,” she said. “For two-and-a-half to three years, we just rallied through it to the best of our ability. But the consequences were burnout.

“We sat down a few weeks ago and said: ‘This isn’t manageable. We need to slow down and take care of our people.’ ”

Branter said the plan is to pause the emergency clinic for three to six months.

“We want to make sure when we open, we are opening forever and that our people are being taken care,” she said. “And until we’re staffed appropriately, the piecemeal approach, it’s not working.”

The labour shortage — among vets, vet techs and support staff — is a problem facing vet clinics across Canada, ­according to VCA Canada Animal ­Hospitals, which has locations across Vancouver Island, including in Nanaimo and Lady­smith.

“It’s across the country [that] there is a shortage of veterinarians and registered veterinary technicians,” said Dr. Danny Joffe, vice-president of medical operations at VCA Canada. “Both of those professions, across the country, we’re just not graduating enough of them.

“We have had a few practices that have had to close their emergency rooms for 24 to 48 hours, but luckily for us that’s been extremely rare.”

Getting more vets trained is a critical first step, experts say. The Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon recently went from offering 20 seats to B.C. applicants each year to 40 seats per year.

That’s an improvement, said Dr. Marco Veenis, a director with the Society of British Columbia Veterinarians. But the society’s 2019 labour market study indicates a need for 100 new B.C. vets per year to keep pace with demand.

“This year, we had about 120 applicants from B.C.,” Veenis said. “There is no shortage of people wanting to become veterinarians. There is a shortage of places where we can train them.”

In addition to the low number of graduates, Veenis said the labour shortage can be traced to a large number of baby-boomer-aged vets approaching retirement, younger vets working less to improve their work-life balance and more women entering the profession at an age when they are more likely to take maternity leave.

A growing human and pet population certainly hasn’t helped.

The pressure on working vets has been cited as a factor in the profession’s high rates of suicide. A 2020 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association revealed that Canadian vets had significantly higher scores for burnout, compassion fatigue, anxiety and depression.

Nearly 20 per cent of study participants said they had thought of taking their own lives in the prior 12 months, and 26.2 per cent had experienced suicidal thoughts.

The suicide of 36-year-old Ottawa-based vet Dr. Andrea Kelly on July 31 prompted yet more calls to address the prevalence of suicide in the industry, CBC News reported on Sept. 6.

Kelly’s family asked for donations to Not One More Vet (NOMV), a U.S.-based non-profit focused on mental health and support for veterinary professionals.

“It’s a very emotional profession,” Veenis said. “It’s emotional, there’s continuous pressure, there’s a high demand for services [and] you have to deal with clients who are emotional, sometimes angry.”

Many vets end up taking a break, or leaving the profession entirely because they can’t take it anymore, he said.

More of the country’s veterinary schools are starting to include education around communication and emotional resiliency, Veenis said, but it will take time for things to change.

“Until recently, veterinarians were basically trained how to fix animals,” he said. “How to run a business and deal with clients and deal with your emotions — that was left to us to figure out.”

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association provides mental health resources and webinars on its website, canadianveterinarians.net.

Anyone in crisis can call the B.C. Crisis Centre at 1-800-784-2433 or Talk Suicide Canada at 1-833-456-4566. The Vancouver Island Crisis Society provides support via online chat at vicrisis.ca, or by texting or calling 250-800-3806.

ngrossman@timescolonist.com

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