Vet students learn about ecosystem influences on health

Veterinary students spend most of their final year in veterinary programs refining and practicing clinical skills.

For cattle, this might entail working on pregnancy checking, perfecting bull testing, designing herd health programs and optimizing parasite control. In a variety of species, vet students practice surgical and anesthesia skills.

But each year, a small group of senior vet students try something different during the National Ecosystem Health Rotation. For two weeks, they explore the nuances of how animal health intersects with the broader picture that includes the environment, wildlife and human health.

The course includes students and instructors from the five Canadian veterinary colleges and often welcomes international student guests. Each college takes a turn hosting the rotation, with each location featuring a unique regional perspective.

Fish and marine ecosystems feature heavily in the course when it is hosted by the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island.

For the first time this year, I had the opportunity to participate as an instructor. It was hosted by Dr. Tasha Epp, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Sask-atchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine, and featured a unique prairie flavour. In addition to the formal coursework on ecosystem cases and topics, many of the students tried saskatoon berries for the first time.

It was also an international group with students participating from across Canada, as well as the United States and Thailand.

The first week included a detailed look at the complexity of honey bee health and pesticide use. Working with Dr. Elemir Simko’s honeybee research group, students participated in a mini-research project. They even got to don beekeeper suits during hands-on interactions with hives.

This was a remarkable educational opportunity because few veterinarians know anything about bees, their management and their health. Yet with changes to antibiotic use regulations, antibiotics for bees will now require a veterinary prescription.

This group will understand the basics when it comes to bee health and can further their expertise should the need or opportunity arise. Since bees interact and depend so heavily on their environment, this was an excellent example to consider the complexity of ecosystem approaches to health.

The second week explored the issues surrounding drought in relation to livestock production from several angles. Perhaps most interesting and poignant was the presentation on how drought affects producers and other people affected by these environmental catastrophes.

Vets can play an important role in connecting communities to various resources, including social and mental health supports in addition to handling animal health concerns. As the presenter put it, “vets need to be less awkward,” in what was the most memorable quote of the course.

One rainy afternoon, the students worked on a simulated wild bird die-off in a native prairie area on the outskirts of Saskatoon. Using variably sized wooden blocks as stand-ins for bird carcasses, the instructors planted the “bodies” adjacent to a pond. The students had to design a search strategy and tromp through the tall grass to find as many “bodies”as possible. This exercise is a vivid demonstration of the challenges of monitoring wildlife health. Finding sick or dead wild animals on the land can be incredibly challenging. It also shows that a few carcasses likely represent the tip of the iceberg, since typically, not all bodies are found. In nature, carcasses are quickly removed by scavenging and decomposition.

These vet students are expected to graduate next April with their full complement of clinical and surgical skills. Hopefully, this course opens their eyes to new ecosystem perspectives with benefits for their community and practice of veterinary medicine.

Dr. Jamie Rothenburger, DVM, MVetSc, PhD, DACVP, is a veterinarian who practices pathology and is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.
Twitter: @JRothenburger

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