Dr. Megan Williams had just finished one of the 12-hour days that are usual in fall, when ranchers have their cows checked for pregnancy and decide which ones will remain in the herd over winter.
Despite a long day spent chute-side, she was upbeat about the work but concerned about the shortage of large animal veterinarians on the Prairies and beyond.
“We need more grads,” she said.
“There’s just not enough bodies. It’s actually a North American problem.”
As the only veterinarian at Blue Sky Veterinary Services in Medicine Hat, at least until recently, Williams is used to long hours.
Though she has managed to hire two other veterinarians for the practice, one from the United Kingdom and another from her alma mater at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, Williams said it wasn’t easy.
“If you want to be just a cow vet, you’re going to be overworked for three months in the spring and three months in the fall, and not at all in summer and not at all in winter. So hiring for that is difficult,” she said.
Dr. Cody Creelman, who operates several veterinary practices in Alberta, echoed the need for more veterinary school graduates. Like Williams, he has been able to recruit enough for his operations, with effort.
“I would say there has been times within our other practices that we have been quite nervous in our ability to fill spots, as we have turnover and as people retire,” he said.
“It cannot just be a passive approach to just hoping that there’s going to be a line of vet students that want to come work at your practice. You have to hustle. So far it seems to be manageable, but it’s not easy.”
The perceived shortage of bovine veterinarians was discussed at several zone meetings of Alberta Beef Producers this fall. It’s not a new complaint, but the numbers indicate supply isn’t keeping up with demand.
One resolution directed ABP to request that the Alberta government reconsider its plans to redirect funding from the WCVM to Calgary’s veterinary program so more veterinarians become available.
Western Canada’s two veterinary schools, the WCVM and the University of Calgary school of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM), between them will graduate about 50 Alberta veterinarians each year until 2020, when the Alberta government will remove the $8 million it provides to the WCVM and instead allocate $4.7 million to UCVM.
The UCVM will then expand its program to graduate 50 veterinarians per year, up from 30. (The WCVM will continue to graduate about 60 veterinarians in total, but will lose 20 spots previously allocated to Alberta students.)
Statistics from graduate exit surveys show less than half of graduates will go into large animal or mixed practice. The balance will work on small animals, primarily dogs, cats and other small pets.
Dr. Chris Clark, associate dean at the WCVM, estimates there are now about 1,580 veterinarians in Alberta, up from an estimated 1,400 that were practicing in 2013.
Of those, only 73 work as food animal practitioners — mostly cattle — and 368 work in a mixed practice that might include both livestock and pets.
“Demand for veterinarians as a whole is definitely on the increase,” said Clark.
The Alberta Veterinary Medical Association estimates that Alberta alone needs to graduate approximately 70 veterinarians per year to meet provincial needs, according to Clark.
That means a shortfall of about 20 veterinarians annually, starting in 2020, assuming Alberta-trained grads remain in the province and few move there from elsewhere.
“I really do believe, and I’m not saying this just because I’m at the (WCVM), but the veterinary needs from Alberta cannot be met by UCVM producing 50 veterinarians (per year). Right now we’re seeing a lot of foreign trained veterinarians coming in and helping to fill that need,” said Clark.
“If I had a magic wand, I’d very much like to see Alberta reinstate some of the seats at WCVM. It meets the original design of the college to be a partnership between the provinces and losing that partnership with Alberta pulling out is a huge blow to that. I think Alberta actually needs those seats.”
“We do need more graduates in order to just maintain the full-time equivalency that the WCVM was able to put out in its history, so I think that both schools should be supported,” said Creelman.
“I really, really hope at the end of the day that the Alberta government decides to support both colleges because the need is there. Both veterinary schools are world class. They are both turning out very good veterinarians.”
Creelman said the number of graduates from the two schools won’t meet demand in the large animal or mixed practice field in part because of changing demographics and attitudes.
“We could graduate 50 veterinarians in 2018, but if you let that play out for 10 years, I don’t think you have the same equivalency as you did in the past. There’s more people that want a more flexible schedule, that are less willing to work the insane hours than some of the veterinarians within our ancestry have worked before.”
Dr. Baljit Singh, dean at UCVM, recognizes the need and the challenges.
“Yes, it is an issue and it has been out there for quite some time and the faculty which is based in Calgary is focused on that question,” he said.
“That rural mixed practice, or the general veterinary practice in the rural areas, is what I believe is needing more veterinarians.”
The college’s strategic plan focuses on four pillars: cattle, equine, ecosystem and investigative medicine, “focusing on the rural economic enterprise in Alberta and to serve the industry that is in those areas, which is (the) cattle production and equine production type of program.”
Singh said about 75 percent of UCVM graduates are working in Alberta. As Canada’s newest veterinary school, it has only graduated seven classes so far, or about 200 veterinarians. The number in large animal practice is unknown, but Singh noted changing demographics are a factor in choice of practice. Graduates with families may choose to practice in larger centres with more amenities, where livestock care isn’t part of the practice. Students from smaller centres tend to return to communities of similar size.
As well, the needs of livestock producers are changing with many moving to larger herds that can be managed by fewer veterinarians.
That said, Singh added that more could be done at all veterinary colleges to interest students in food animal care.
“On the large animal side … we have not done a great job in the teaching programs across North America in exciting students to think about, for example, the interaction of the food production animals, whether they’re pigs or chickens or cows, with the environment and human health.
“I think we need to create an exciting opportunity through teaching programs for our younger students so that they can think of going into a bovine practice.”
The recent gift to the UCVM of the $44 million W.A. Ranch near Calgary may help in that effort. Singh said benefactors Jack Anderson and Wynne Chisholm were clear in their desire for the ranch to become a “living laboratory” as well as a working ranch.
“I believe this ranch will make a big difference to the teaching programs in this faculty when it comes to exposing our students to the cattle production programs,” Singh said.
“If there’s one veterinary program in the country which is really set up to deliver on some of these needs, that’s what we have in Calgary.”
Williams, who is facing another six weeks of 12-hour days doing pregnancy checks and other veterinary work, isn’t convinced that UCVM can solve the veterinary shortage on its own and thinks the problem could get worse. She echoed Creelman’s worry.
“Millennials don’t want to work like this, so we need more of them to do the same job because they don’t want to work the hours. But by having a government that actually pulls funding from one of the major vet schools, it just sets us up for failure.”