Veterinarians in southeast B.C. join forces to preserve emergency care amid staffing shortage

·3 min read
 Uli Helvoigt, owner of Tanglefoot Veterinary Services, takes a blood sample from a dog. She says her employees were becoming exhausted from regularly responding to overnight emergencies, so the clinic halted 24/7 care.  (Brendan Coulter/CBC  - image credit)
Uli Helvoigt, owner of Tanglefoot Veterinary Services, takes a blood sample from a dog. She says her employees were becoming exhausted from regularly responding to overnight emergencies, so the clinic halted 24/7 care. (Brendan Coulter/CBC - image credit)

Almost every night after midnight, Uli Helvoigt gets phone calls about injured or sick animals that need help.

But the veterinarian, who owns Tanglefoot Veterinary Services in Cranbrook, B.C., says she's forced to turn away people and their pets every day as demand surges.

"It just never ends," said Helvoigt. "The phone never stops ringing."

In April, her clinic announced it could no longer offer round-the-clock emergency care as shortages of vets and veterinary technologists made it impossible to offer uninterrupted services.

But Helvoigt has now partnered with six other clinics in the East Kootenay region so residents can continue to access overnight emergency care.

The East Kootenay Veterinary Group, made up of clinics in Cranbrook, Kimberley, Fernie, Creston, Invermere and Golden, is making at least one veterinarian available on call overnight every night in southeast B.C.

After-hours calls will be assessed by a technician directing callers to the nearest on-call clinic.

 Brendan Coulter/CBC
Brendan Coulter/CBC

Helvoigt admits forcing people to drive hours at night to access services isn't ideal, but she says her clinic had no choice.

"We never have enough people to do the things we need to do," she said.

Veterinarian shortages continue

Across B.C., staffing shortages in veterinary clinics have existed for years but got worse during the pandemic as demand surged with more people adopting pets, leading to burnout among many in the profession.

Shortages are particularly acute in rural areas where it's harder to attract workers, according to the Society of B.C. Veterinarians.

Tanglefoot practice manager Jeff Cooper said the "staffing crisis" had meant the clinic could no longer offer continuous service, with staff responding to 700 emergencies in the last 10 months.

"It was just way too much work for one clinic to take on," he said.

"We can't afford to burn out our team."

The East Kootenay Veterinary Group is not the province's first veterinary call-sharing system created to ensure the availability of overnight services. A group of five clinics in Kamloops work together to make sure there's always a vet on call.

Larger cities like Victoria, Vancouver and Kelowna, meanwhile, have 24-hour veterinary hospitals.

Brendan Coulter/CBC
Brendan Coulter/CBC

Uncertain future for overnight care

The province has announced it's doubling the number of subsidized seats in veterinary college to address the shortage of animal doctors. This fall, 40 B.C. students attending the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon will receive support.

Rob McLeod, a vet at Creston Veterinary Hospital, one of the East Kootenay Veterinary Group clinics, says more resources need to be allocated to make sure emergency services are available in rural B.C.

"Right now, it's depending on the willingness of veterinarians to provide it," he said.

McLeod does expect sharing resources will help with recruiting veterinarians to the East Kootenay and said he's optimistic the partnership will keep overnight services available to locals and their furry friends in the long run.

"This can't be anything but a positive thing," he said.

CBC British Columbia has launched a Cranbrook bureau to help tell the stories of the Kootenays with reporter Brendan Coulter. Story ideas and tips can be sent to brendan.coulter@cbc.ca.

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