Calgary veterinary school boosts diagnostic abilities

The university will receive $3.4 million to expand its diagnostic service unit for enhanced animal disease diagnosis

A four-year pilot program expected to start next month should increase the capacity of disease diagnostics at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

The animal food production sector, particularly Alberta cattle producers, welcomed the news.

“This is all about restoring a basic level of diagnostic services within the province of Alberta. It’s something we’ve been without for quite some time,” said Karin Schmid, research and production manager with Alberta Beef Producers.

“The benefit to producers is being able to have an economical and cost-effective way to monitor their herd health, to explore any weird situations that might be occurring on farm that requires some expert support. It will also magnify surveillance efforts in Alberta and across Western Canada,” said Schmid.

Alberta Agriculture and the Canadian Agricultural Partnership are providing $3.4 million to the UCVM over four years to expand its diagnostic service unit for enhanced animal disease diagnosis and welfare.

UCVM dean Baljit Singh said the initiative is long overdue.

“Considering the importance of the livestock sector in Alberta’s economy, considering the presence of a veterinary school in Calgary, I think it just made sense now to begin making an investment in this area,” he said.

In 1995, the Alberta government ended its veterinary diagnostic services to the livestock industry by closing several diagnostic laboratories.

Since then, private practitioners have provided diagnostic services using a for-profit model.

“It was the mid-’90s when funding for those diagnostic laboratories collapsed and ever since then, we’ve been advocating for improved diagnostic and surveillance capacity within the province. This is something that the other provinces still have in full force and not to say we have none, it’s just very, very limited, especially compared to other provinces,” said Schmid.

“What we can do as an industry with this expansion, and assuming this continues for many years in the future like we are all hopeful it will, it gives us a better idea of what disease challenges our producers are facing.

“It lets us monitor trends over time and in the event of an emerging disease, hopefully we can catch that a bit earlier than we would have otherwise,” she said.

Singh said the diagnostic unit will carry out necropsy post-mortems and further work-ups at fixed, subsidized rates, which will provide an incentive for producers to bring their animals to the unit.

With the expansion, UCVM joins the list of other universities and government organizations and businesses that have major diagnostic labs in Guelph, Ont., Saskatoon and Abbotsford, B.C.

The veterinary school handles 1,000 to 1,500 post-mortems annually and capacity is expected to increase.

“All types of species come in to provide the teaching or learning experience to our students. They need to be exposed to a variety of animal species from horses to the cows, to dogs, cats, birds, anything that comes through,” Singh said.

The university plans to add an anatomic pathologist and a clinical microbiologist plus two technicians and one support staffer to the existing diagnostic team.

Two specialized pieces of equipment valued at about $750,000 will allow personnel to examine antimicrobial resistance in bacteria, one of the major challenges for scientists.

“Another exciting piece is that there is money to do on-farm disease investigation as well, which the veterinary school did not have capacity to do,” said Singh.

“We would do disease investigation only if our students are involved from the teaching side, but this part of the money will allow the veterinary medical faculty to ride out to a farm, collect samples, look at the story, do the analysis and provide information back to the farmers.”

Cattle health experts can also be sent to farms where an animal has died to either move the carcass to the lab or collect post-mortem samples for analysis.

“Right now we do not have capacity to do it. We do it occasionally, but not with the regularity that we would like, especially when somebody is suffering major losses because of a disease outbreak or spread. They’re already suffering economic losses.

“If you put the burden on the farmer to pay for all the disease investigation work that needs to be done, it’s not a major incentive towards creating a profitable annual food production sector,” said Singh.

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