Canada’s vets not doing well — overwork, pet ownership, debt leading to burnout

Karissa Mitchell knew something was wrong when work took over everything.

She didn’t have the energy to cook or call her family on the phone. It was at the height of the pandemic, and the Nanaimo, B.C. vet was not only working 12-hour days, but soaking up the emotion that comes with treating sick animals and dealing with their often difficult owners. .

She couldn’t bear it.

“I wasn’t able to be the vet I wanted to be, and I burned myself out,” Mitchell, 28, said. “It was really frustrating to realize that I couldn’t do it anymore.”

Mitchell quit her full-time job as a veterinarian in April 2021 and now works at different clinics, where she can control her workload.

“I love my job, but I’m nervous for the future of my profession if no changes are made, especially with the vet [technician] and vet shortages.”

COVID-19 has exposed cracks in many parts of the medical system, including animal care, which were on the verge of crisis before the pandemic.

Cleo, a recent client of Skyline Veterinary Hospital in North Vancouver, is recovering from surgery. (Lyndsay Duncombe/CBC)

There are not enough vets and staff to care for pets and livestock across the countryeven as the number of pets – and the intensity of people’s attachment to them – increases.

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association estimates that 30 percent of Canadian veterinarians and 50 percent of veterinary technicians are in the advanced stages of burnout.

“I saw tears, and people wanting to leave the profession, and people leaving the profession,” said Dr. Rocky Lis, who runs Skyline Veterinary Hospital, a new practice in North Vancouver, along with two others. partners.

“Something’s Gotta Give”

Skyline opened in September and is one of the only clinics in the area to welcome new patients. As a result, Lis’ days are busy.

“I saw tears, people wanting to leave the profession and people leaving the profession,” said Dr. Rocky Lis, who co-operates Skyline Veterinary Hospital in North Vancouver. (Lyndsay Duncombe/CBC)

On a recent Wednesday, Lis removed a potentially cancerous lump from a cat, assessed two other felines, had lengthy appointments with several dogs and even x-rayed a lethargic backyard chicken with a sore foot.

It’s an unbearable pace, Lis said. “Something must give.”

It’s not just a matter of workload. Veterinary medicine is unique in that highly motivated and compassionate professionals undergo intense and competitive training to care for animals, but end up spending a lot of time dealing with owners who may not be able – or willing – pay for services.

“A lot of vets coming out of vet school…become disillusioned pretty quickly,” Lis said. This is because they may not realize that “there would be an element to having these discussions [with clients] every day saying, ‘This is how much veterinary medicine costs.'”

Another client at Skyline Veterinary Clinic in North Vancouver. (Lyndsay Duncombe/CBC)

This is especially true in Canada, he says, where universal health care means people don’t understand the costs associated with medications, even though animal care is considerably cheaper.

Mitchell agrees that was part of the reason she ran out.

“The money of [a customer’s] The bill doesn’t just go straight into the pockets of vets, it’s to pay for the medications, supplies, and resources we use. »

Supply cannot meet growing demand

The reality is that despite the high volume of patients, being a veterinarian is highly unlikely to make anyone rich.

Salaries vary by location and type of practice, but most “companion animal” veterinarians can expect to earn between $90,000 and $100,000 per year.

It’s closer to a teacher than a doctor, and many vets work in or own small businesses with minimal, if any, benefits.

Nanaimo veterinarian Karissa Mitchell not only worked 12-hour days, but absorbed the emotion that comes with treating sick animals and dealing with their often difficult owners. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Not only that, but some new vets enter the profession with huge debts.

This is partly because the way Canada trains veterinarians is different from any other profession. There are five colleges across the country, and students can only take the program in the area where they live.

Provincial governments fund places in the institution concerned, but the number of graduates does not always correspond to the size of the population.

Excluding international students, who may or may not stay in Canada, approximately 380 veterinarians graduate in Canada each year. This rate is barely keeping pace with early retirements, let alone growing demand.

The high cost of education

The Government of Alberta recently announced a plan to double the number of veterans graduatingto meet the shortage.

In Saskatchewan, the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) has proposed a different plan. Up to 30 students will be admitted each year without provincial funding, essentially allowing Canadian students to pay the same fees as international students.

This means that eligible students will have to pay full, unsubsidized tuition, which is a huge difference in cost. A student with provincial funding can expect to pay $12,717 in annual tuition, while those without funding will pay $67,717 each year for the same training.

“When I got into vet school, it was a dream come true, and it was also devastating,” said Ruth Patten, a native of Kelowna, British Columbia, and a sophomore at WCVM.

She didn’t qualify for one of the 20 funded seats in British Columbia, so she estimates that with living expenses, her education will cost between $300,000 and $350,000 a year.

“It’s going to be tough to pay that amount of money in this profession,” she said.

In fact, given bank borrowing limits and government student loans, Patten isn’t sure she’ll be able to raise enough money to fund her education.

“When I got into vet school, it was a dream come true, and it was also devastating,” said Ruth Patten, who is in her second year at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatchewan. (Don Somers/CBC)

She is part of an effort to pressure the BC government to pay to train more vets. A petition asking for additional funds has been collected more than 2,000 signatures.

She doesn’t think the cost of education is fair, especially when there is such a need for vets in her home province. “I don’t think it’s fair to the people of BC, I don’t think it’s fair to the cattle of BC, I don’t think it’s fair to the people of BC. Britons who have pets who need to see a doctor.”

“It’s a complex problem”

Patten is aware that her debt will likely mean a stressful start to her career in an already stressful industry. That said, she can’t imagine doing anything else.

“It’s a crisis, but we have to get involved, something has to change, and I don’t think retiring and going into another profession is going to help,” she said.

One thing that is changing is how vets are trained. Due to the mental health crisis on the ground, WCVM has emphasized wellness in the program. Students now learn personal and business finance, communication and teamwork.

From next year there will also be a specific resilience program, according to Dr Chris Clark, associate dean of the program.

“It’s a really comprehensive program that focuses on learning skills that you will eventually develop in your profession that will help you deal with difficult circumstances and difficult people, which happens all the time in medicine. vet,” Clark said.

The Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatchewan is launching a specific resilience program for its students, according to Dr. Chris Clark, associate dean of the program. (Don Somers/CBC)

He says the crisis has meant an abundance of job opportunities for his students. All graduates of this year are expected to have employment upon graduation; many already do.

“Right now they will have more options than any generation that never graduated,” he said.

But Clark worries that many of his students will enter clinics without the mentorship and support that new vets need.

Karissa Mitchell chose to stay in veterinary medicine, but as a so-called locum vet, she controls how much she works and when. She makes sure to take lunch breaks and has weekends off.

“I just feel more energetic, I’m excited to come to work,” she said. “I love my job, I love working in a team, I love animals.”

But everywhere she goes, she sees evidence of a system at breaking point. Mitchell says that no clinic she works at has enough staff.

“It’s a complex problem, and it needs a complex solution.”