The farm doctor is in

Despite retirements, fewer grads and an abundance of opportunities elsewhere, officials say they are filling farm animal vet positions in the province

Terry Roberts editor@cbncompass.ca
Published on January 21, 2010
Farm animal veterinarian Kevin Andersen examines a calf at a dairy farm in Goulds recently. - Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

While jurisdictions throughout North American struggle to cope with a declining number of farm animal veterinarians, officials in this province say there should be a full complement of them in place by this spring.

Hugh Whitney, the province's chief veterinary officer, said a recent recruiting campaign by the Department of Natural Resources is paying off.

While jurisdictions throughout North American struggle to cope with a declining number of farm animal veterinarians, officials in this province say there should be a full complement of them in place by this spring.

Hugh Whitney, the province's chief veterinary officer, said a recent recruiting campaign by the Department of Natural Resources is paying off.

"Two years ago, it wasn't good," Whitney said, noting there were three retirements in a very short time. And since a vast majority of farm animal vets are female, he said, there's also been a struggle filling temporary vacancies created when vets take maternity leave.

He said there are now two vacancies. He said the process of filling the position in St. John's is in the "final stages," while the vacancy in Clarenville is likely to be filled in the coming months.

"We're still filling (positions), but I think we're at the end of it," Whitney said.

As the title suggests, farm animal vets are those who work with food animals and horses. It's a sometimes messy and back-breaking line of work, with uncertain hours and often many weeks of on-call time.

There's also a belief that farm animal vets make less money than vets who specialize in pets such as dogs and cats. These small-animal vets are also more likely to work regular hours, and are more likely to own their own business.

Another striking difference in the two specialties is that farm animal vets have to travel - sometimes great distances - to see their patients, while small animal vets generally wait for the patients to come to them.

"Working in an urban clinic where people bring their animals to you is much more attractive than getting up at 3 a.m. and driving to visit a sick farm animal," Whitney stated.

Merv Wiseman, a past-president with the province's federation of agriculture, operates a large silver fox farm in North Harbour. He praised the provincial government for its efforts in addressing the shortage, adding, "our industry depends on them."

Wiseman relies on veterinarian services provided by the provincial farm animal office in Clarenville. At one point, he said, both positions at the office were vacant and veterinarians from other regions of the province had to fill in.

Wiseman said he relies on the advice and assistance of a farm animal vet "every other week."

He said those in the larger dairy industry are even more dependent on these experts, with calves being born on a regular basis.

Wiseman said "it's just not glamorous" to work as a farm animal vet, and those who enter the profession have their choice of positions.

The demand is especially high in places such as Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and throughout the United States.

Whitney agrees, adding that human medicine, law and pharmacy often seem more attractive to those trying to decide upon a professional career.

"People who go into veterinary medicine generally do so because they like working with animals and have the job satisfaction that goes with this type of work," he noted.

Urbanization is also a factor.

With fewer people coming from rural backgrounds, the likelihood of people choosing this field decreases, Whitney explained.

Shawn McKenna worked in St. John's as a farm animal vet for a little more than a year beginning in May 1999. He's also been back on several occasions since then to relieve veterinarians on leave.

His decision to leave St. John's was influenced heavily by working conditions.

"I was doing about 29 to 30 weeks a year of on-call time," he recalled. "I couldn't keep that up. I wanted to go to a clinic with more people and not be on call as much."

McKenna recalled a day during his stint in St. John's, when he spent 15 hours responding to two calls - one in St. Shott's and the other in Torbay.

He is now the chief of farm service with the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island, and is preparing future vets for work on the farm.

He said the number of students choosing farm animal work is dropping at an alarming rate.

Even those who do make that choice often change paths once they realize the demands, McKenna explained.

When he completed veterinary school, 11 of his peers went into farm animal medicine. Only three of those are still doing it, he said.

He acknowledged that the rate of pay is also a major factor.

"My sister just finished a residency at Memorial in pediatrics and she's probably making close to four times the amount of money I did and we invested the same amount of time," he said.

It typically takes eight years of study for someone to become a veterinarian.

McKenna and Whitney regularly discuss the widespread shortage of farm animal vets. McKenna said there's no easy solution.

"I struggle with that every day," McKenna said.

So how is it that this province is able to fill its ranks of farm animal vets?

Whitney said many seek the stability of a job with the public service, while many in the applicant pool are from Atlantic Canada and want to stay in the region.

He said there have not been any special agreements to help entice veterinarians, and vets have received the same wage increases as those negotiated for the entire public service.

troberts@thetelegram.com