N.W.T. veterinarian clinics spread thin as pandemic-driven demand grows

·5 min read
Veterinarian Michelle Tuma conducts a general health check up on a young golden retriever named Dale. Tuma is the owner of a mobile veterinarian service that offers in-house checkups, vaccinations, and other services. (Rose Danen - image credit)
Veterinarian Michelle Tuma conducts a general health check up on a young golden retriever named Dale. Tuma is the owner of a mobile veterinarian service that offers in-house checkups, vaccinations, and other services. (Rose Danen - image credit)

Payton Hancock was walking her dog, Zev, around Kam Lake one evening, a regular routine for the Yellowknife resident. But the evening took a turn when Zev emerged from the bushes with a face full of porcupine quills.

She recalls calling her husband in a panic. He started calling all the vets in town, but they all went to voicemail.

"I was mostly panicked and stressed about not being able to find a solution right away," said Hancock. "That's just the first thing you think of, to go to the vet."

Hancock took to Facebook, looking for help from the Yellowknife Lost/Found Pets group. Comments flooded in from others with advice, stories about similar experiences, and outrage at the lack of after-hours emergency veterinary services.

Jamie Malbeuf/CBC
Jamie Malbeuf/CBC

As demand for veterinary services grows, veterinary clinics in the N.W.T have been forced to restrict or temporarily suspend their emergency after-hour services to prevent staff burnout.

"As veterinarians, we are very, very empathetic people and we want to help out with the animals as much as we can," said Dr. Michelle Tuma, a veterinarian and owner of Northwest Territories Veterinary Services.

"But we also need to prioritize which animals need to be seen and prioritize our own mental health as well to prevent burnout."

Pandemic pets and vaccine backlogs

The cause for that increased demand? Pandemic fallout, according to N.W.T. veterinarians.

There are only three vet clinics in the N.W.T., all located in Yellowknife. There are only four full-time vets in the whole territory.

While a shortage of veterinarians in the N.W.T. may be contributing to the problem, this is nothing new, according to Tuma. What's new is the demand.

"The number of vets has grown in Yellowknife which is great, but also the number of pets has grown as well and that's where a lot of the difficulties and the shortage of veterinary services is coming from," said Tuma.

In addition to the growing number of pets, Tuma says that pet owners staying at home during the pandemic has led to pent up demand for vaccines.

"Everyone is going on trips and going to have to board their animals and now they've realized their dog is due for vaccines," she said. "Then you get a call on Friday at 4 p.m.: 'My dog needs to be vaccinated. It's boarding on Sunday. I'm leaving on Sunday. Please help me.'"

Tuma says that this trend is not unique to the North. Clinics across Canada are also having to put restrictions on their services.

Dr. Tom Pisz, a recently retired veterinarian from Great Slave Animal Hospital, has seen the same trend.

"During COVID, there were a whole bunch of new dogs," said Pisz. "Many dogs were kind of sitting with their owners for two years. But now they're going back to work and we're seeing dogs like crazy."

Great Slave Animal Hospital had to temporarily suspend its after-hours emergency services in February due to staff shortages, especially among vet technicians, according to Pisz.

Limiting services to prevent burnout

With no vets available to help, Hancock and her husband ended up pulling out the porcupine quills themselves from Zev's face with the help of a friend.

"In a situation like this, time is of the essence," said Hancock. "With the quills you want to get them out as soon as possible. So we just kind of figured we'd deal with it on our own."

Other animal lovers are similarly taking matters into their own hands.

Travis Burke
Travis Burke

Cait Ross was in bed scrolling through Facebook when she came across a post from a woman named Jada, begging someone to help her save a cat that had been hit by a vehicle. With no after-hour emergency service available, Ross took the cat in until the owners could be found.

With no other options, Ross tried an after-hours teletriage service offered by Tuma. The operator told her to keep the cat warm and comfortable and take it to a veterinarian in the morning.

"The fact that he made it through the night … When I was driving him home to my house there were a couple times where I was certain he took his last breath," said Ross.

In another recent incident, a dog in Yellowknife jumped out the window of a moving truck and suffered a fractured pelvis.

With no emergency services available, the new dog owner reached out to Tia Hanna, the owner of Happy Pooch Pet Services. The dog stayed in her grooming stall over the weekend until it could see a veterinarian.

"I have pet first aid. I have assisted in veterinary clinics before in some capacity … but I'm definitely not a veterinarian," said Hanna. "But I was able to at least provide a quiet environment for the dog."

The incident opened Hanna's eyes to the lack of after-hours veterinary care.

"If something happens to my dogs right now, I tell you I'm not waiting for a vet clinic to open. I'm driving south. We will be on our way to High Level, to Edmonton, to wherever we can find the next vet," said Hanna.

Tuma says that while she understands how scary an emergency with no vet available can be, she's asking pet owners to be patient and understanding with veterinarian clinics.

"Clients and pet owners — I know it's difficult to comprehend but it's also something that should be respected as well," she said. "Creating those boundaries and ensuring their staff is not overworked, not overwhelmed, and don't suffer any burnout, is really important."

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