KINGSTON — Dr. Jeff Sleeth is a long-hauler. The Kingston veterinarian treats cattle and horses, always travelling rural roads to visit clients on the farm as an intrinsic part of the job.
And he suggests his kind is getting scarce and likely to get scarcer.
A vet of 21 years, Sleeth says there is a shortage of skilled large-animal practitioners doing what he does in a large swath of Eastern and Central Ontario, an underserved area he describes as west of Kemptville and extending to just the other side of Toronto.
“There is, more importantly, a tremendous, seeming shortage of skilled bovine practitioners in rural practice,” Sleeth tells Farmers Forum, conceding his opinion may not accord with every source in the industry. “It may depend on who you ask.”
Years ago, half of all new vets coming out of the University of Guelph were farmers. As of 2019, fewer than 10 per cent of vet students came from the farm.
In Sleeth’s estimation, there is no shortage of rural vets right now in the province’s concentrated dairy areas east of Kemptville and further west of Toronto, noting there are more practices established with experienced vets to cater to the strong sector in those regions.
He identifies a dearth of new veterinarians entering any kind of practice in the first place, let alone those with a penchant for cattle and horses. “It’s almost impossible to hire anybody right now for large and small animal care,” he says. “And finding somebody with any inclination to do large animals — and with any skill to do large animals — is impossible.”
Adding to the potential supply woe is the aging population of large-animal vets and looming retirements, he says.
And he highlights a concern that their future replacements — the next generation of vets — aren’t in it for the long haul. They tire of the 24-hour, on-call life of the large animal vet, he says.
“A lot of graduates will do large animals for four or five years, then vacate to small animal practice,” where the clients visit them with dogs and cats, he observes. In affected rural areas, it produces a “turnstile” of different veterinarians.
Sleeth, who grew up on a dairy farm, emphasizes the importance of a long-term relationship between the large-animal vet and, say, a dairy farmer relying on a vet to ensure the greatest possible efficiency from his animals.
He estimates that 75% of his practice today sees him treating horses, with a specialty in equine dentistry. The balance of his work sees him making the rounds of dairy and beef farms.