‘They just had to suffer and be in pain’: Sask. rural vet shortage affects pet owners, farmers

A pet owner and Councillor in the Rural Municipality of Prince Albert says the lack of after-hour veterinary care is a concern for him and several of his neighbors with livestock.

Tyler Hazelwood woke up Sunday morning three weeks ago to find all three of his dogs stabbed with porcupine quills and a lamb with a broken leg.

“There’s no veterinary service around here on weekends or evening callouts so they just had to suffer and be in pain for a full 24-hour wait until I could take them to the vet the next Monday morning,” said Hazelwood.

Prince Albert veterinarian Peter Surkan says there is a shortage of veterinarians in the area. He wants the province to help encourage more vets to settle in the region.

“The rate of veterinarians leaving through attrition or retirement or stress leaving or things like that far exceeds the replacement numbers,” Surkan said.

He has worked in the industry for 35 years and has spent 33 years in Prince Albert. He says he’s never experienced a shortage of trained professionals like this.

Currently, there are only two Clinics left in Prince Albert. The vet Clinic in Shellbrook is also closed. Surkan says his Clinic serves clients from a 100 kilometers radius east and west and north to Lac La Ronge.

He says vets often work 60 hours a week to keep up. About a year ago, they had to stop providing weekend and after-hour care.

Sick or injured animals now have to be transported elsewhere for care – as far away as Saskatoon.

“You’d get 30 to 40 phone calls in a weekend and you’d come in 10 or 12 times without any support staff and you can’t do that long term.”

At the same time, he’s noticed a spike in pets since the Pandemic.

“A lot of people that had one animal now have three or four. The disposable income of most of these individuals has actually increased and the expectation of care is tremendous because (they’re) really good pet owners and they really want to look after their animals. ”

He says the shortage of vets is affecting animal welfare. He had cattle ranchers express frustrations with the lack of service and say it contributed to the death of animals.

To qualify, recent graduates must be working in a “designated rural or remote community with a population of less than 10,000,” people according to the province’s website.

Under the program, veterinarians and veterinary technologists receive a forgiveness of 20 percent of their outstanding Saskatchewan Student Loan debt.

Surkan wants the province to broaden the criteria to help attract vets to smaller urban-rural centers like Prince Albert. He suggests including vet students from other Universities in the province’s loan forgiveness program.

“Every student should be eligible and not just the Saskatchewan Residents. It’s not going to cost very much. They’re going to get that money back in taxes. ”

He also suggests increasing the number of people in the program and creating a group to lobby the government for Improvements to rural vet care.

The province says the Saskatchewan Student Loan Forgiveness Program for Veterinarians and Veterinary Technologists encourages veterinary professionals to work in rural areas of the province. However, Prince Albert is not considered rural by the program.

“The government recognizes the demand for veterinarians and veterinary technologists across the province and continues to work with stakeholders to address this Labor market need. We have taken steps to close this gap, ”said a statement to CTV News from the Ministry of Advanced Education.

It provided $ 11.9 million in funding to the Western College of Vet Medicine this year, an increase of $ 84 thousand over 2021-22.

The Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), Associate Dean of Academics Chris Clark, says 85 per cent of its graduates settle in Western Canada. The college recently increased its class size from 78 students to 88 students.

The WCVM is the only college in Canada to offer a practical examination to Accredited foreign-trained veterinarians for people who have immigrated to Canada and want to practice.

“That’s another really important role that the college has taken on to try to get more veterinarians out there,” he said.

Clark says veterinarians are Vital to the economy and animal welfare in rural areas.

“The job is important because you are responsible for the welfare of thousands of animals. You’re also playing a vital role in the food supply of Canada, ”Clark said.

Starting in fall 2022, three of the 20 veterinary seats at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine will be targeted to students with a demonstrated likelihood of working in large animal and / or rural mixed animal practices.

He also notes what they call an “explosion in the pet population” during the Pandemic and says urban centers continue to attract veterinarians due to demand for service there as well.

“There is a situation where people follow the Economics and so some of the salaries that can be offered in urban centers are higher than those that can be matched in a rural area.”

The college Trains students to be general veterinarians to care for small animals as well as livestock such as cattle, pigs, chickens and horses.

A recent partnership between the Saskatchewan Veterinary Medical Association and the Saskatchewan Cattlemen Association pairs third-year students in practices with vet mentors in the cattle industry in the last summer of their training.

Clark says the mentorship is done to build a student’s experience, confidence and to see the benefits of that type of career.

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