Sask. veterinary association says staff shortages at 'crisis point' amid high demand

Nanaimo, B.C., veterinarian Karissa Mitchell examines a feline client. A shortage of veterinary professionals is being felt across Canada. (Michael McArthur/CBC - image credit)
Nanaimo, B.C., veterinarian Karissa Mitchell examines a feline client. A shortage of veterinary professionals is being felt across Canada. (Michael McArthur/CBC - image credit)

An ongoing shortage of veterinary professionals across Canada is taking its toll on Saskatchewan.

Dr. Sarah Allin, president of the Saskatchewan Veterinary Medical Association, told CBC's Morning Edition Tuesday that it is very difficult to access service in rural and urban centres.

She pointed to Regina's 24-hour clinic, which posts notices when it can no longer operate all hours due to staffing, and the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) Medical Centre, which has limited some of its after-hours service.

"It compounds the issues right down to those smaller [rural] areas even more, because there isn't a place for them when they get overloaded," Allin said.

"We've come to the point where it's no longer just a shortage. We're dealing with a crisis."

Allin said there are many reasons for the shortage, including how the veterinary industry and those it serves have changed over the last several decades.

She said an increase in pet ownership, largely due to the pandemic, has impacted the types of services offered and led to more demand for veterinarians.

"On the other side of the equation, the rate at which we produce veterinarians and veterinary technologists in this province … hasn't changed significantly yet in the past 50 years," she said.

The prolonged shortage is both a byproduct and a cause of burnout that is plaguing the profession.

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association estimates that 30 per cent of veterinarians and 50 per cent of vet technicians nationwide are in the advanced stages of burnout.

Allin said there are no short-term solutions — Canada simply needs more veterinary professionals.

Lyndsay Duncombe/CBC
Lyndsay Duncombe/CBC

Changes made to entice veterinary careers

Dr. Gillian Muir is the dean of the WCVM at the University of Saskatchewan, which recently expanded its class sizes from 78 to 88 students to address the increasing demand.

"That [expansion] has put us at capacity. We are at the limit of our space availability and our instructors that we have," Muir said.

The dean said the school is are now in the middle of a feasibility study looking at what is needed, from physical space to human resources, to further expand the program.

"It's our responsibility to expand because veterinary schools, we are the gateway," she said.

Muir told Saskatoon Morning that Canada's five vet colleges graduate around 450 veterinarians a year. She said that number would "probably need to double" to meet demand.

Meanwhile, Muir added, the demand is there for people wanting to pursue veterinary careers, as applications continue to outnumber admissions.

She said the WCVM is also the only veterinary school in Canada that provides the final clinical exam for internationally-trained vets to qualify for work in this country.

"We put about 55 veterinarians out into the workforce each year with this exam," she said, adding they are working with the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association to increase the frequency of the exam.

The WCVM has received funding from the governments of British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan to facilitate larger class sizes.

In January 2022, the Saskatchewan government launched an expanded eligibility for loan forgiveness to entice more veterinarians and veterinary technologists for the program to work in rural areas.