Twenty-one-year-old Stephanie Juhary has been doing everything she can to get into veterinary school. The fourth-year University of Guelph zoology student has volunteered at animal shelters since she was a teenager. In second year, she worked as a pathobiology department assistant at the university’s Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), which she hopes to attend.
Restrictions imposed during the pandemic limited opportunities to gain more experience. So, the push was on last fall to make up for it. Ms. Juhary took an overnight on-call position as a surgical assistant at OVC in her first semester, prepping for surgeries in the middle of the night, then struggling the next morning to stay on top of her schoolwork. She volunteered at a local vet clinic, is a member of the university’s Future Vets Club, and worked with OVC’s fundraising arm, Pet Trust.
Despite the hours and hard work, she knows it may not be enough. OVC’s admitting average was 93 per cent last year. The school gets more than four applications a year for every seat it offers Ontario residents (other vet schools in the country receive as many as 10 applications per entry seat). Besides high grades, the school looks for a wide range of animal care experience among applicants.
“I want this career so badly. But sometimes it feels like the career doesn’t want me.”
The whole process has been “really, really tough,” says Ms. Juhary, who has opted for a fifth undergraduate year to boost her application grades. “I want this career so badly. But sometimes it feels like the career doesn’t want me.”
Except the career does want more veterinary graduates. Lots more. Even before the pandemic and its pet boom, half of all Canadian veterinary clinics were searching for new vets, as shown in a 2020 Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) survey. Quebec, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan were particularly challenged. A 2021 Alberta vet workforce study reported a job vacancy rate of nearly 17 per cent, in a province known for its cattle industry. Vets not only provide service to companion animals, they are integral to the food animal industry, government food safety oversight, scientific research using animal subjects, and research into animal-borne diseases – including those that can infect humans.
“I’ve been in practice for 16 years. We have a four- to six-week wait for new patients to be seen. In my career, I’ve never seen that,” says Nicole Jewett, registrar of the New Brunswick Veterinary Medicine Association and a practising veterinarian in Fredericton. “I know of some clinics that are no longer accepting new patients because they are at capacity.”
Canada’s university-based veterinary programs are graduating enough vets to cover those retiring from the profession – about three per cent, or 375 a year. But that does nothing to manage the surging demand for vet services. Where household pets are involved, that’s because of a growing Canadian population, increasing disposable income leading pet owners to demand more vet service per fur baby, and rising pet ownership. Pooches are winning the popularity contest, with the CVMA forecasting a 45 per cent growth in dog ownership by 2030, up from about 7.7 million dogs in 2020. The association has recommended adding about 700 new vets a year across the country over the next decade.
Facing down that task are Canada’s five university-based veterinary colleges. The youngest school, at the University of Calgary (UCVM), was created in 2005, fast-tracked by an economically devastating outbreak of mad cow disease. Most significant recent growth has come from the addition of undergraduate seats for international students, who pay close to full fare for their education – hovering around $70,000 a year – and only at schools that accept them: OVC, the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), and the University of Prince Edward Island’s Atlantic Veterinary College (AVC). Most international students come from the United States though, and generally don’t stay past graduation.
“Everybody is thinking about expansion,” says Gillian Muir, WCVM’s dean, referring to seats for Canadians in particular. Much depends on provincial funding, which has moved only a little until recently. Veterinary education is expensive because students must be trained in all aspects of animal medical care, from diagnostics to anesthesia and surgery, for animals large, small, winged, legged or not, in just four years (or five years in Quebec). And there’s no publicly funded hospital for them to do their clinical training the way medical students do. Universities must therefore equip and maintain a full-service, private veterinary hospital themselves, with room for a year’s class of students, which most do, or find enough private vet clinics willing to host students for that training, as UCVM does.
But several colleges received good news this past spring, reflecting a growing recognition among governments that there’s a problem. Alberta’s government announced a $59 million investment over the next three years to create additional facility space at UCVM so that the school may double its seats, citing “concern over the growing shortage of large animal veterinarians” and the risk it poses to the province’s agricultural sector. The province subsequently announced an additional $8.4 million over three years to support the planned enrolment expansion.
Facing growing pressure from its veterinarians, a private citizen’s petition, and calls from opposition politicians such as Liberal agriculture critic and dairy farmer Ian Paton, the government of British Columbia announced in April it would be subsidizing another 20 available seats for its students, adding to the 20 existing seats at WCVM.
The Quebec government is not only planning to expand Université de Montréal’s program by 25 seats as early as 2024, it is building a $40 million satellite facility to be housed at Université du Québec à Rimousk, with a focus on training students who are more likely to practise in underserviced regions. The government’s research found an alarming decline in veterinarians for the agricultural sector since at least 2017, with a 17 to 18 per cent drop in western and parts of northern Quebec.
Students in the new program will do their first three years in Rimouski, a fourth year at U de M, and a fifth clinical year split between U de M and regional practitioners. Work toward the new program has been “a very unifying experience for our profession in Quebec because we’re all suffering tremendously from the workforce shortage and the prospect is not good if we don’t do anything about it,” says Christine Theoret, dean of U de M’s program.
“We hire specialists. But there are fewer of those specialists around and it’s getting harder to fill those positions, so we’re having to become creative in how we recruit them and how we retain them.”
OVC has submitted a similar proposal to Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities, where OVC would collaborate with Lakehead University to offer a vet program between Thunder Bay and Guelph for 12 to 15 students. The proposal was still under Ontario government review as of early June, as was a request for the government to subsidize an additional 15 to 20 seats at OVC this fall. If the subsidy does not go through, those seats will go to international students.
AVC would “absolutely” like to grow too, but its dean, John VanLeeuwen, points out that requires infrastructure funding. His smallest classroom has just enough room for a single year’s cohort. And the vet shortage affects the number of faculty AVC can secure. “We hire specialists. But there are fewer of those specialists around and it’s getting harder to fill those positions, so we’re having to become creative in how we recruit them and how we retain them,” Dr. VanLeeuwen says.
Although making more seats available to domestic students by deregulating fees may be an option, the appetite for that seems low. WCVM has experimented with deregulation by making some seats available to western Canadian students at full cost. And Jeffrey Wichtel, OVC’s dean, says a similar approach “should be on the table.” But at his college, he says there is more discussion about diversifying the curriculum and student body to recognize that low-income and racialized pet owners represent a significant segment in need of service (which is a conversation taking place at other schools too). “Whilst we could charge more for the degree, we would also want to match that with programs that could provide support for students who don’t come from a privileged background,” Dr. Wichtel says.
Even recent expansion announcements won’t begin to help until the first cohort graduates four or five years later, so schools are working on other ways to alleviate shortages. They’re thinking about improving vet retention, by recruiting less for marks and more for resilience, and preparing students via a changed-up curriculum for the profession’s sometimes tough realities – which are reflected in above average rates of depression, burnout, and even suicide.
For the last two years, U de M has reserved 15 seats a year for students with a significant background in the food-animal industry and large-animal vet practice (rising demand for companion-animal vets has been blamed for worsening a chronic large-animal vet shortage by drawing those people away); Saskatchewan does this for three of its 20 WCVM seats. U de M also has a growing food-animal internship program for its students, paid for by the provincial government. And the University of Calgary is planning an outreach drive to underserved rural communities. “We know that people are more likely to work and live in rural communities if they come from rural communities,” says Renate Weller, UCVM’s dean. “I want to have a more diverse application pool and I want to have applicants from those underserved communities.”
“I get advertisements on my Facebook saying that Canada is recruiting vets from across the world. Well, you’ve got many, many young people who want to be vets back home, without the opportunity.”
Vet colleges can also help in the licensing of vets trained at unaccredited foreign schools, but again, resources are a problem. The WCVM is the only Canadian location for these professionals to do clinical proficiency exams under the CVMA’s National Examining Board, which adds 54 more vets to Canada’s workforce annually. Dr. Muir calls it “quite an undertaking,” spanning four days, three times a year, which is why AVC bowed out of offering the exams several years ago. U de M is working on a special entry category into its final year of clinical training for this same group, which would allow three or four foreign-trained vets a year to take the same licensing exams as Canadian students.
As the shortage continues, so too does the exodus of Canadians to accredited schools overseas. About 150 return home for licensing each year after studying abroad. Sydney Hunt of Kelowna, B.C., aims to be one of them. She attends an accredited veterinary medicine program at privately owned Ross University on the island of St. Kitts. (About 40 of the program’s annual intake of 400 students are Canadian.)
Ms. Hunt was unsuccessful getting into WCVM, despite having worked in a local vet hospital since age 16, and despite having secured an employment offer if she can get licensed. She says it’s “dumbfounding” that she’s had to leave Canada and turn to her family and the vet practice for financial support to pursue her dream. “I get advertisements on my Facebook saying that Canada is recruiting vets from across the world,” Ms. Hunt says over Zoom, with the bright blue Caribbean sky behind her. “Well, you’ve got many, many young people who want to be vets back home, without the opportunity.”
Louis Kwantes, the CVMA’s president, agrees more must be done. His association held a summit in June where stakeholders – educators, government, the agriculture industry, and provincial vet associations – discussed a “workforce paradigm shift.” That will include looking at how to better use veterinary technicians, the profession’s nursing equivalent, to better care for all the animals who are part of our human world.
“The increasing number of students is great, but it probably only comes to about 10 per cent of the additional need,” Dr. Kwantes says. “There are additional steps that should be taken, and the best way to do that is in a collaborative and mutually supportive way.”