A shortage of veterinarians has become a growing issue in Alberta. (Black Press file photo)

A shortage of veterinarians has become a growing issue in Alberta. (Black Press file photo)

Veterinarians in short supply in rural Alberta

Rural municipalities pushing to have more vets trained

Rural communities have long struggled to find physicians willing to set down roots in small towns.

Finding the medical experts to care for four-legged patients outside the major centres is proving as big a challenge.

Alberta Beef Producers general manager Brad Dubeau said the organization has been highlighting the veterinarian shortage for years.

“The vet shortages have continued to get worse over the years. But we’re getting to a place where it is becoming a crisis,” said Dubeau.

“Producers are hours and hours away from vets. We want to make sure we don’t have an animal welfare issue and that if an animal is in distress, producers have the ability to connect with a veterinarian who, within a reasonable time frame, can get there to assist with an animal.”

Mountain View County is trying to drum up support for a resolution to take before the Rural Municipalities Association’s (RMA) annual conference urging the government to develop a rural veterinary practice stream and double the number of training spaces from 50 to 100 at University of Calgary’s Veterinary Medicine Faculty.

The county also wants to see efforts boosted to recruit foreign veterinarians, develop online support programs for practising vets and for the Rural Municipalities Association (RMA) to work with the university to encourage and support students heading to the veterinarian program.

In background information for its resolution, the county says there are 377 veterinarian vacancies in Alberta and 487 unfilled veterinarian technologist positions. A 2021 professional workforce study estimated that the shortage of veterinary professionals will grow 3.5 times by 2040, creating a shortage of nearly 3,400 vets and vet technologists.

Rural communities’ post-COVID-19 growth opportunities will be restricted if action is not taken to reduce vet shortages, says the county.

“The Alberta Beef Producers is very supportive of the RMA also engaging in this issue to try and address this problem, which is not just unique to Alberta, it’s Canada-wide and, quite frankly, it’s a world-wide issue,” said Dubeau.

“There is a world-wide veterinarian shortage.”

There are a number of reasons for the lack of large animal vets. Many veterinarian school graduates choose to focus on companion animals, such as dogs, cats and other family pets. That allows them to set up a clinic in larger centres, where they can treat many more animals and generate higher income than if they focused on farm animals, which might involve driving hours there and back and working in difficult conditions.

“It’s hard to draw people to rural Alberta where there’s the potential for more possibilities in the larger centres.”

Dubeau said the producers would support initiatives to help sell new veterinarians on the merits of rural practices and finding ways to support them so they stay.

Alberta Beef Producers says vets are critical to the beef industry, which generates $13.6 billion in sales, contributing $4 billion to the provincial GDP, including $2.7 billion in labor income.

Richard Lorenz, who raises about 130 cows in the Markerville area, agrees the vet shortage has become a growing problem. The vet who works with his animals has had a lot of difficult trying to find vets and other veterinary specialists.

Much of the problem can be traced to the evolution of agriculture away from family farms passed down from one generation to the next.

“There are not many farm kids going through for vets who know anything about large animals and have worked with large animals,” he said.

“And a fellow with a dog and a cat comes in and they can get a few hundreds dollars to work on their small pets in the office. How many people want to come out to the farm and work with the big animals?

“You can make more money at your clinic working on small pets than you can with large animals.”

Veterinary economics puts ranchers at a disadvantage. Pet owners, with only a cat or dog or two, can pay more per animal than would be affordable for a beef producer who may have hundreds of cows, a small number of which might need care at any one time.

“People are willing to spend more on getting their vet to work on their pets then I can afford to have a vet work on my cows,” he said. “The margins are too slim for the beef guy.”

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