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Call of the city lures vets to pet practice

July 3rd, 2003, 11:48 AM
Bulwark of disease control in livestock may be threatened as graduates shun rural areas

Special to The Globe and Mail

The patients may be a lot different, but veterinary medicine appears to be mimicking, almost step for step, the changes taking place in human medicine.

Not only are today's animal owners demanding new treatment options such as acupuncture for their pets, but the same staffing shortages that plague medical practices in rural Canada are also becoming a fact of life in veterinary clinics.

"We can't get people to go to rural areas because of the trend toward larger practices," says Duane Landals, president-elect of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA). "Unfortunately, the large practices that work well in Edmonton and Toronto don't work quite so well in East Overshoe, Alta."

And in a world of emerging food-borne threats such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), this is bad news for consumers. Because new graduates are being drawn to the more lifestyle-friendly "companion animal" practices in Canada's cities, it is becoming difficult to find veterinarians willing to work in rural "food animal" practices or in public health roles.

This worries Tim Ogilvie. "Veterinarians are the first line of defence in disease surveillance at the farm gate," warns Dr. Ogilvie, dean of the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown.

However, attempts to encourage new graduates to move to practices dominated by farm animals is a tough sell in a profession in which 80 per cent of new veterinarians are women, most of whom are interested in treating family pets. "The profession is simply not capturing the interest of males," a 2002 report in the Canadian Veterinary Journal stated.

"This isn't meant to sound sexist," says Dr. Ogilvie, "but I think it can be said that women are more nurturing than men and can relate better to companion animals. And they also compete very well academically."

The new face of veterinary medicine is represented by people like Lesley Smordin, a 2002 graduate of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, who now practises in two clinics near Ottawa. Dr. Smordin, a Winnipeg native, completed an undergraduate degree in animal science before winning one of the 10 coveted quota spots Manitoba fills at the Saskatoon college. About 200 people applied for them.

"It's definitely rewarding work and every day brings something different," says Dr. Smordin, who specializes in treating dogs, cats and "the odd" guinea pig. "But don't go into it thinking it is nine-to-five work. It is anything but."

Although Dr. Ogilvie thinks developments such as BSE are making Canadians more aware of the role veterinarians play in protecting human health -- he says 75 per cent of new and re-emerging diseases in humans have an animal host -- issues like these are rarely front and centre for Canadians whose only contact with a vet involves a sick dog or cat. And even this relationship is changing. "Pets are in a different bracket now," says Dr. Ogilvie, pointing to a move in California to change humans' relationship with animals to one of guardianship, not ownership.

Dr. Landals says that when he entered practice in 1975, "I guess what I didn't understand was that every animal comes with an owner attached."

He understands it today. "A person who was treated by a chiropractor may decide that a chiropractor would help his horse, so now we have veterinarians who offer services in areas such as chiropractic, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine."

Regardless of these changes, the profession still touches such a strong nerve among young Canadians that competition to enter the field remains fierce. Dr. Ogilvie says his school, part of the University of Prince Edward Island, routinely has four qualified applicants for every opening -- a ratio that is only slightly lower than at the country's 16 medical schools. Canada's four schools of veterinary medicine, which recently received $113-million from the federal government to help maintain accreditation standards and insure protection of the food supply, produce 320 graduates a year. Most have multiple job offers when they graduate, with starting salaries of about $50,000. "Many of them will owe more than that by the time they graduate," warns Dr. Ogilvie. Tuition fees in PEI are $7,200 for Canadian students; for the handful of international students -- mostly from the United States -- who are accepted, the college charges about $43,000 annually.

Dr. Landals says the starting salary range "is pretty good," but salaries tend to increase slowly. He estimates that veterinarians who own a practice can earn between $100,000 and $110,000 annually. Although he used to consider the two practices he owns near Edmonton an investment that would serve as his "retirement plan," that's not the case today. "There's no longer a market," he says.

But the lure of economic benefits didn't draw Dr. Smordin to the field. Despite some "heart-breaking" tasks, such as euthanizing animals, she finds the work rewarding. "It's not just about the animals, although that's what drew me to the field. You also develop a relationship with the family that owns the pet, and you see both the animal and the family grow up."

She says the toughest part of the job is the realization there is no medicare plan for animals. "If you can't afford an ultrasound, you don't get it," she says. "That's just part of veterinary medicine."

Dr. Ogilvie says the number of ethical issues facing veterinarians is growing.

"Should you euthanize a healthy animal at a client's request? It is easy to say no to someone who wants to euthanize an animal for convenience, but what do you say to someone who is dying of AIDS and is worried about the future of an animal that has been [his] closest companion for eight years?

"You get some heart-wrenching stuff."

Dr. Ogilvie says issues such as that are why veterinarians are taught not only about animals but also about their owners.

"When our dog died of cancer two years ago, we received a card that contained the dog's paw print, and it was signed by all the people who had cared for it. And this wasn't done because I was the dean here -- it's what we do."