Large animal veterinarian shortage starts with students

The shortage of large animal veterinarians in Western Canada is an age-old problem that seems to be improving with time.

First, we have to look at the number of seats available for veterinary students in general. There is a rumour that seats for Alberta students went up with the addition of 20 seats at Alberta’s veterinary school in Calgary. However, the funding for those seats was taken away from the vet school in Saskatoon so the net gain-loss for Alberta students was zero.

The good news is that Saskatoon now has the same seats as before so technically there has been a gain of potentially 20 student seats in Saskatoon at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine.

Once the quota for each province is met, students can apply for the additional 20 seats as out-of-province applicants. It is a bit easier to get in but the downside is there are significant tuition costs.

I have met many promising sons and daughters of cattle producers, purebred seedstock producers as well as those from acreages with a real interest, aptitude and skill level for production animal vet practice.

However, even though they were good students with decent grades, the competition is so keen that exceptional marks are often required. Even though they have the necessary intelligence to get through the program, they don’t even get to the point of the interview.

This seems daunting but several options are still available.

I read an article by a veterinarian saying that hiring veterinarians with a certain skill level was difficult. I would argue their skill level is generally quite high from the two veterinary schools and that is evident by the scores in the national licensing exams. They may lack experience, but with proper mentorship, that can be quickly overcome in almost all cases.

I have been more than impressed with the recent graduates entering large or mixed animal practices. The problem is there are not enough of them.

The other issue is that they may gravitate away from the province they grew up in. Many Saskatchewan students that are trained in Saskatoon gravitate to other provinces, which is probably not fair considering Saskatchewan government coffers subsidized their education. Currently, there is no mandate to work in the province that helped with your education and veterinary graduates have a multitude of reasons to go where they do, including the type of practice, climate, wages and benefits offered. They may be following a spouse or significant other.

The vast majority go back to their home provinces, at least initially.

I have also met many western Canadian veterinarians that have been trained abroad and have gotten in as a foreigner.

They pay a lot higher tuition, probably three to four times what regular students pay at the vet colleges here.

Those include schools like Massey in New Zealand, Royal College in the United Kingdom, several schools in Australia and Ireland, as well as many accredited schools in the United States.

I encourage potential students to explore all those options. You hate to see someone miss their dream and of course they will really fill a need for veterinarians in the future.

The big things students must check out is that they are fully accredited in Canada. All graduates must write the national exam, but if they are from a non-accredited school there is a huge number of practical exams and costs before they can practise in Canada.

A doable solution might be for certain regional areas of Western Canada or veterinary clinics in need of production animal veterinarians to perhaps help subsidize tuition or give a scholarship in exchange for a promise to come back and practise for a few years.

One often finds if veterinary graduates stay for a few years, they get ingrained into the area, the clinic and the type of practice.

Encourage any family, relatives and friends to pursue veterinary medicine if it is their passion. We can help them find ways to gain acceptance including groups, regions or clinics to help subsidize tuition.

Emergency calls are decreasing and regional large clinics with shared calls are becoming more the norm. I want to encourage young people in our rural areas that have a passion for agriculture and production animals to pursue their dreams. There are many ways to get that done.

Roy Lewis works as a veterinarian in Alberta.

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