A long-time Sarnia vet says she is distressed that after-hours emergency pet care is difficult to get in our community, but says there is no easy solution.
A shortage of veterinarians and a boom in pet ownership brought on by the pandemic has created a critical problem, said Dr. Sandra Taylor.
She owns Lakeshore Veterinary Clinic and has been a local vet for more than 30 years.
Dr. Taylor urges all pet owners to have a plan in case their animal has an after-hours emergency. She also recommends medical insurance for pets.
“I wish more than anyone that we had after-hours care,” said Dr. Taylor who answered after-hours emergency calls for decades before deciding in 2021 that she needed a better work/life balance.
“I’m in the profession because I like science, I like animals and I like to help,” she said. “But we all work nine to 10 hours on our feet every day.
“It’s a struggle.”
At the same time, numerous veterinarians in Sarnia have retired in recent years and very few are starting new practices.
Dr. Taylor and Dr. Vinod Khanna at South Sarnia Veterinary Services said they have concerns about how few new veterinarians are graduating from Canada’s universities and, in particular, how few are deciding to locate in Sarnia/Lambton.
“There’s a general shortage of vets in Canada,” said Dr. Khanna. “The reason is that it’s very complicated to get into the schools. They require very high marks and many very intelligent people don’t get accepted.”
Dr. Khanna and Dr. Sunil Patel own South Sarnia Veterinary Services and work with a group of vets who rotate in and out of the clinic every day. Only one lives in Sarnia while the others commute.
“We’re seeing pets suffer in Sarnia because of the shortage – 100%,” Dr. Khanna said. “We try to help here as much as possible.”
Most days, South Sarnia is double booked. We don’t like to turn anyone away,” said manager Tara Parker. “It’s exhausting. Burnout is common and people are leaving the profession.”
That goes for both vets and veterinary technicians, Parker added.
Burnout and the suicide rate among veterinarians is very high, said Dr. Taylor.
The economics of answering after-hours calls is also a big problem, she said.
In 2021, 2% of Lakeshore Veterinary Clinic’s patient base was after-hour emergencies. Of those, half of them could have been supported by a triage service or virtual appointment or phone consultation with a telemedicine service.
“Financially speaking, to have staffed after hours, with the equipment and supplies needed to operate as an emergency facility is not feasible with these numbers,” Dr. Taylor said.
That has prompted Lakeshore and most other Sarnia vets to refer all after-hours calls to Smart.Vet, a Burlington-based business that was started by co-founder and CEO Dr. Sharon Quinn.
Smart.Vet provides triage over the phone and video appointments with veterinarians as needed. If an animal needs immediate attention at a clinic, Smart.Vet refers the owner to the nearest open emergency animal hospital.
The closest clinic for Sarnians is in London but it has limited hours, so referrals are often made to Windsor, Kitchener, Brantford and Mississauga, Dr. Quinn said.
Calls from Sarnia are received after-hours by Smart.Vet daily, said Dr. Quinn. “Apart from northern Ontario, the Sarnia and London areas are our busiest. Your area in particular has a real struggle.”
Dr. Quinn said she co-founded Smart.Vet because vets are burning out and 70% – 75% of cases can be handled over the phone.
“Smart.Vet was born of necessity and near desperation as the shortage of veterinary professionals combined with the COVID pet population boom caused a terrible crisis with respect to access,” she said. “Certain areas, including Sarnia/London were incredibly hard hit.”
Dr. Taylor said the ongoing discussion about a lack of after-hours care locally is causing her and her staff real stress.
“Accusations that we do not care about…pets is severely damaging to our emotional resilience,” she said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The veterinarians reached by The Journal all said the nature of veterinary care has changed in recent years and that’s contributed to the lack of after hours care.
Clients visits are much longer than they used to be, making for longer hours for the vets during regular work hours.
Also, finding staff willing to go to a private home in an emergency during the night is very difficult because of safety concerns, Dr. Taylor said. And the animals who must have immediate emergency care can’t be accommodated in an understaffed, under-equipped clinic.
“Even if I won the lottery and could set up an emergency clinic with every kind of equipment, I couldn’t find the staff,” said Dr. Taylor.
The lack of after-hours vet care is the subject of two petitions currently circulating in Sarnia/Lambton. Thousands of pet owners have signed the petitions asking for some kind of solution. One Sarnia woman intends to send her petition to city council.
Meanwhile, local vets and vet technicians have these suggestions for all local pet owners:
• Be sure your pet is registered with a vet. Many aren’t taking new patients so be prepared to make a few calls. Generate a client/clinic relationship and patient history;
• Keep up to date with preventive care, get vaccinations and spay/neuter your pet if you don’t plan to breed;
• Contact your vet and make an emergency plan as soon as you notice an issue. Don’t’ wait until it becomes an emergency;
• Discuss after-hours options with your vet when there is no emergency. Have a plan;
• Know where your nearest 24-hour emergency clinic is located. Call ahead if you need care there;
• Smart.Vet (www.smartvet.ca) is available to anyone and does not require a referral. Smart.Vet can provide prescriptions. Often telemedicine can address what seems like an emergency to a pet owner;
• Keep an emergency pet fund or get pet insurance. Vets operate private businesses and are not government agencies. Many require payment up front and do not have payment plans.
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