ROCKWOOD — A tightening supply of large animal veterinarians continues to be a concern in Ontario farm country.
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture board recently supported a resolution from its northern caucus highlighting the challenge farmers face accessing large animal vets and registered vet techs in underserved areas — identified generally as northern and “rural” Ontario.
OFA policy analyst Danie Glanc said the issue has been on the OFA’s radar for nearly two decades, with similar resolutions passed in 2004, 2007 and 2008.
Access to large-animal vets grew even more important a few years ago when certain anti-microbial medications became available exclusively through veterinarians. “There was concern up north at the time about access because you had to have the client-patient relationship developed in order to get those medications,” said Glanc, also president of the Ontario Equestrian Association.
“There are a lot of ideas about why there might be a shortage [of large-animal vets],” she said, raising as possibilities a disinterest in that speciality by new veterinary graduates, cost of living and limited career opportunities in rural Ontario, capital investment required, and student debt loads.
Dr. Jeff Sleeth, a Kingston-area large animal vet of 21 years, told Farmers Forum that there is “a tremendous, seeming shortage of skilled bovine practitioners in rural practice.”
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.
But the future looks grim.
He identified 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 said. “And finding somebody with any inclination to do large animals — and with any skill to do large animals — is currently impossible.”
Adding to the potential supply woe is the aging population of large-animal vets and looming retirements from the field, he said, also concerned that their future replacements — the next generation of vets — aren’t in it for the long haul.
“A lot of graduates will do large animals for four or five years, then vacate to small animal practice,” where the clients come to visit them with dogs and cats, he observes. In affected rural areas, it produces a “turnstile” of different veterinarians visiting farms until those candidates tire of the 24-hour, on-call life of the large-animal vet.
Glanc observed that urban and suburban small animal practices may find it easier to share the load on emergency calls, freeing individual vets “from having to do all those on-call hours.”
Being a large animal vet “is a very difficult profession,” acknowledged Glanc. “Not that they don’t want to do it, but it is tiring.”
But the large animal vet is nonetheless crucial to farm operations, she said, playing a vital role in animal welfare, biosecurity and “ultimately a healthy and safe food supply” for Ontarians. They must also maintain an important relationship with the farmer on paper in a legal sense, according to Glanc, before that vet can prescribe certain medications to the farmer.