Pet owners in Port Alberni have been facing unprecedented wait times at veterinarian clinics. A sign outside of Manzini Animal Hospital on Margaret Street warns that there is “no doctor on site.” Other clinics in town are under-staffed, over-worked and taking on more pets than they can handle.
But Port Alberni is just one of many communities across Canada struggling with this vet shortage.
“There are multiple reasons,” said Alison Belbin, the operations director of Vet Strategy for Vancouver Island North. Vet Strategy is a network of veterinary clinics and hospitals across Canada. In Port Alberni, Manzini Animal Hospital and Pacific Rim Veterinary Hospital are both part of Vet Strategy. “The demographic is higher—the number of of people who have pets, especially with COVID. But the number of vets and vet techs who are graduating every year is not enough.”
Back in April 2021, the Society of BC Veterinarians warned that B.C. is on pace to have a shortage of 100 vets per year by 2024.
“Urban veterinarians are reporting two weeks or longer wait times to get appointments for veterinary care,” warned an open letter from the society addressed to members of B.C.’s legislative assembly. “Rural veterinarians report eight weeks or longer and, in some cases, the animals die before getting the help they need.”
The society has asked the province to fund an additional 20 student seats at B.C.’s regional veterinary college (Western College of Veterinary Medicine).
Manzini Animal Hospital is just one of the clinics in Port Alberni feeling the squeeze. The clinic was previously open six days a week with four vets, but now that number is down to one vet working two days a week. Manzini has two vets on maternity leave who will eventually be returning, but in the meantime, the clinic is struggling to find vets to fill their absences.
“Even trying to get a new [pet] owner in is hard,” said Andrea Pettigrew, the practice manager at Manzini.
The clinic has an average of 180 calls a day. More than half of those are people looking for appointments, while the others are looking to pick up food or prescriptions.
“Most we have to turn away,” said Pettigrew. “It’s quite troubling. Our receptionists have been hearing things like, ‘So you’re just going to let my pet die?’ Which isn’t fair. It’s very hard on all of our staff.”
Belbin agreed that the biggest challenge is having to say “no” to clients.
“It’s a huge stress on the staff, knowing people are in distress and their pets are in distress,” said Belbin.
Pettigew says the clinic tries to refer clients to other vets in town, but it is difficult when other clinics are facing the same situation. (Other clinics contacted for this article did not have time for an interview).
The vet shortage also puts added pressure on the Central Island Veterinary Emergency Hospital in Nanaimo, which is the only 24-hour, seven days a week emergency animal hospital north of Victoria. Patients there are seen on a triage basis, which means people and their pets are often left waiting.
“Sometimes for hours,” Belbin added.
More and more often, vets are being forced to turn away clients—not just for emergencies, but also for regular wellness check-ups. Some people have blamed a “pandemic pet boom,” as adoption rates have risen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Belbin said the vet shortage started long before the pandemic.
“COVID has exacerbated the problem,” said Belbin. “But the shortage has been coming a long time.”
Port Alberni vets also see many pets from the West Coast, which has no full-time clinic. But some relief might be coming, with a full-time vet clinic planning to open up soon in Tofino.
Dr. Jeff Berry and his wife Rhonda MacDonald opened Tofino Vet Clinic in 2019. The clinic, which is only a house-call practice right now with one vet, sees clients from Tofino, Ucluelet and other areas on the West Coast, as well as many visitors who are passing through the West Coast.
Most days, said MacDonald, the clinic is fully booked. On weekends, when the clinic is closed, MacDonald often returns to dozens of missed calls, emails and messages on Facebook.
“I easily have 500 files right now,” said MacDonald. “And I know that it’s just going to get busier now that things are opening up again [after COVID-19].”
MacDonald said the clinic is hoping to become accredited within the next few weeks, which means they can open a full hospital with x-ray and surgery capabilities. The team has also hired one additional vet, who will be joining them in September.
“We’re hiring both vet techs and vets,” said MacDonald. “But like every other clinic, it’s difficult to find staff right now.”
MacDonald said the couple originally moved to Tofino to “semi-retire.” When they learned that the West Coast had been without a vet since 2004, they decided to open a house-call practice.
“It started out as a small thing. Now it’s turned into a big thing,” MacDonald laughed. “Someday we’ll semi-retire again.”
With many clinics across the province and the country facing the same wait times and veterinarian shortages, MacDonald says that most clients have been “extremely understanding” about their situation.
“I think most people with pets realize there is a vet shortage,” said MacDonald. “Everybody is doing the best that they can right now.”