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Cattle breeder fears life-or-death calving decisions amid rural Manitoba veterinarian shortage

For large animal producers in Manitoba, access to a veterinarian can mean the life or death of their animals.

Dianne Riding operates a calf farm near Lake Francis, Man., 70 kilometers northwest of Winnipeg. She said during calving when a cow needs an emergency caesarean, she counts on a vet to be able to help – but fears help won’t always be there.

“We have been left out in the cold on the side of the big beasts,” said Riding. “We are very short of veterinarians.”

While she’s never experienced the fear of a vet being absent in a time of need, some of her friends struggled to find help during calving season last year.

“It’s really tough for a producer because we’re trying to breed these cows to be trouble-free… but sometimes Mother Nature just plays bad tricks,” Riding said.

“If you’re told you need to call other clinics to hopefully find another vet…and you can’t get a vet out and you can’t get the calf out of that cow…perhaps your only option is to euthanize that cow.”

The prairie has seen a growing shortage of large veterinarians over the past 20 years. The Manitoba Veterinary Medical Association said there are 147 veterinary practices in Manitoba — 70 of those practices are large animal or mixed, and 63 are located at least 19 miles outside of Winnipeg and are considered rural.

There are at least 68 veterinary positions that need to be filled in Manitoba to meet current requirements.

It’s a scary situation because there’s no end to the shortage in sight, Riding said, even though the government and veterinary associations are trying to build a more robust rural veterinary system.

“I don’t know of any solutions, I only know that it seems to be getting more and more difficult,” said Riding.

search for solutions

Allison Pylypjuk, past president of the Manitoba Veterinary Medical Association, is a dairy veterinarian practicing at Beausejour Animal Hospital.

She graduated from Saskatoon’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine in 2011 along with about 80 other students. Pylypjuk said about a dozen of her graduates want to go into large animal medicine.

Due to the shortage of veterinarians, demands for care have increased, Pylypjuk said, creating a stressful situation for veterinarians trying to meet customers’ needs.

“It’s difficult to maintain a one-person practice … in rural Manitoba because it’s very unfair or difficult for a vet to be on call 24 hours a day. It doesn’t allow you to lead a balanced lifestyle and can lead to burnout. “

Pylypjuk is co-chair of the association’s ad hoc committee on rural forums. The committee, formed three years ago, works to encourage veterinary schools and the province to hire more veterinarians in Manitoba.

The province announced in September that Saskatoon’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine — the closest veterinary school to Manitoba — added five seats, bringing the graduate roster to 20.

While Pylypjuk is pleased to hear those seats are growing and the government is listening, she said more needs to be done.

“Access to veterinary care … is at the forefront of all of this,” said Pylypjuk.

“We want to make sure everyone in the province, whether you live in Winnipeg or in the country, has access to veterinary care and I think that’s really important.”

Increasing the number of doctors and veterinary technologists coming to Manitoba and tapping into foreign doctors are part of the puzzle, she said, but there also needs to be more emphasis on utilizing larger, multi-person practices so that medical care is shared among multiple veterinarians can be .

Cattle are in a pen.
In Manitoba, at least 68 veterinary positions need to be filled to meet current requirements, especially when it comes to large animals such as horses and cattle. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Chris Bell, President of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, practices equine medicine in Headingley, Man., 20 kilometers west of Winnipeg.

A 2020 association workforce study showed that the number of veterinarian graduates in mixed and large animal medicine was declining. It is estimated that around 3.5 to 4 percent of veterinarians leave the industry each year, and schools are lagging behind to fill these positions.

The association is working to increase the number of veterinarians visiting the mixed and large animal practice, Bell said. This includes working with veterinary colleges and provincial governments to increase student enrollment at most veterinary schools in Canada.

In the short term, veterinarians are looking for out-of-the-box solutions, such as better use of veterinary technologists and telemedicine for mixed and large animal care, Bell said, emphasizing preventive animal health care.

“A lot of these programs [to increase graduate seats] are still in the early stages of development and just getting started, but we hope to see some of the students return and return to rural areas.”

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