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B.C. veterinarian shortage to see relief soon after 'breaking point'

With the B.C. government doubling the number of subsidized seats for local vet students, one veterinarian is calling it "a good first step."

This story contains sensitive subject matter related to suicide and may be distressing to some readers. If you or someone you know needs support, there are a variety of options: 1-800-784-2433, KUU-US Indigenous crisis line (1-800-588-8717), and this Mental Health Supports website.

Some much needed relief is on the way for veterinarians and pet owners.

On Monday, the B.C. government announced it'll be doubling the number of subsidized seats at Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) on the University of Saskatchewan campus.

A press release notes the total $10.7-million investment will increase the number of B.C. students sent to the Prairie province from 20 to 40 in the upcoming 2022-23 academic year.

It's a request some veterinarians and the BC SPCA have been calling for.

"For the past few years, the BC SPCA has raised the alarm about the veterinary shortage affecting animal guardians in B.C. as they struggled to access veterinary care for their animals," the society said in a statement on its website. "This [investment] will make a tremendous difference."

Each year, some seats at the the Saskatoon school are designated for B.C. students.

Through an agreement called the Interprovincial Agreement (IPA), funding is provided by the province. These students, according to the Society of BC Veterinarians, pay $11,000 in tuition each year, for four years. 

In addition to these seats, there are 25 non-IPA, or non-funded seats, which cost $69,000 per year, comparable to international veterinary school tuition rates.  

According to the the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training, there are grant supports available to non-IPA students. 

"Eligible students enrolled in a program under two years in length may receive up to $4,000 a year in B.C. Access Grant support. Eligible students enrolled in a program of more than two years may receive up to $1,000 a year in B.C. Access Grant support,” said a ministry spokesperson in an email. "Students may, in addition, receive up to $6,000 under the Canada Student Grant for Full-Time Students program.”

'A good first step'

Last year, a B.C. veterinarian posted an emotional video online, hoping people could understand the pressures being placed on the veterinary medicine field.

The woman, who refers to herself as Dr. Em, as she fears backlash for speaking out, said her profession was "hurting" and "in trouble."

“We need things to change to reduce some of the stressors,” she said in an October 2021 interview with Glacier Media.

According to her, the industry was struggling before the COVID-19 pandemic. Even more strain was placed on staff as anxiety levels skyrocketed and people purchased pandemic puppies. 

"The industry as a whole is feeling overwhelmed,” she said at the time, noting the pressure on the industry was the worst she had ever experienced.

“There is the emotional distress on behalf of the owner and often that gets displaced on veterinarian staff who are just trying to help,” said said.

According to the Society of BC Veterinarians, many vets are working 12- to 14-hour days.

"They’re exhausted, they’re not tired, they’re exhausted. They have no time to eat during the day, they don’t see their families, they are getting burned out, their staff is getting burned out,” said executive director Corey Van't Haaff last year.

With this week's announcement, Van't Haaff remains cautious. 

"They've only committed to funding for their first year, these new 20 students," she said Wednesday. "This is a good first step. We obviously want this to become permanent that they'll fund 40 students every year." 

Overwhelmed because of the shortage

When Glacier Media spoke with Van't Haaff last fall, she said veterinarians, at all different stages of their careers, were calling her frightened and in tears. Many told her they have to quit.

"Everybody is overwhelmed because of the shortage of veterinarians, which was made worse because of COVID,” she said. "Veterinarians in British Columbia are really beyond the breaking point.”

Van't Haaff and the society say more veterinarians are needed so pressure and stress aren’t put on the ones currently working.

“We are hearing statistically... that the number of suicides, or suicide attempts, or suicidal thoughts among veterinarians are rising disproportionately from other occupations and populations,” she says.

Dr. Em shared with Glacier Media that colleagues of hers have taken their lives. 

"I know of too many to count, and then four that were a lot closer to me,” she said. "It’s a lot of loss.” 

When she describes her industry, "maxed out" comes to mind.

"There is definitely guilt and just a feeling of being overwhelmed all the time and like you can’t ever catch up."

Adding to the pressure, is people being aggressive or rude toward staff. 

“People seem to be under so much strain there is emotional abuse of vet clinic staff when we can’t immediately meet a perceived need that somebody has,” said Dr. Em.

Long-time veterinarian Dr. Al Longair has been working in Duncan for more than four decades and said he too is concerned and has had a colleague die by suicide. 

"It’s not a new thing, but it does seem to be increasing,” he said.

"Everybody is quite stressed and you don’t really want to talk to many other vets because it can bring you down because stress is a hard factor, and COVID-19 just made a problem dramatically worse."

Longair said receptionists in the clinic often take the brunt of disgruntled, rude pet parents.

"We’ve had a few episodes where it got a little nasty. We’ve been able to work our way through most of them,” he told Glacier Media.

Of his biggest concerns, is retirement. 

"I am concerned about the future when I finally retire, will there be somebody who can fill some of my workload or am I going to feel guilty because I know they’re having to wait longer now?” 

‘We want to take care of the veterinarian professionals'

An international organization based out of San Francisco has been offering support to veterinary staff around the world since 2014. 

Not One More Vet (NOMV) has a mission to provide veterinarians, front-desk staff, nurses and technicians with resources. 

Executive director Darlene Bos said they have volunteers across Canada and on Vancouver Island.

"There is a general issue of making sure our veterinarian professionals are well, that they aren’t dealing with intense stresses whether they be financial or with clients, so that they can do their job every day and go home and be well and safe,” said Bos. 

The American admits it’s difficult to have statistics on the numbers of deaths. 

"We know this problem has existed for a long time and it wasn’t being spoken about,” she said. "This level of awareness and with it coming understanding is so hopeful to me.”

In an email, the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training acknowledged the strain placed on veterinarians and said the province is working to offer more mental health supports for workers, including low- and no-cost counselling services. A government website has also been created to help people find mental health services. 

The province has also created a phone line (1-800-784-2433) for anyone needing help. There's also a KUU-US Indigenous crisis line (1-800-588-8717). 

Both Longair and Dr. Em say it's important for pet owners to listen to their vet's advice, and work collaboratively for their pet's health.

"We do care about their animal, that is a priority, every staff member here,” said Longair. "We are not miracle workers, we do the best we can, but it’s a team effort.”

For Dr. Em, owners being responsible and having pet insurance or planning far in advance for appointments is helpful. Kindness, meanwhile, goes a long way.

“Just saying 'thank you,' that would be wonderful,” she said. 

Editor's note: This story was updated on April 6, 2022 to include new information from the B.C. government. The original version was published in October 2021.