Good for Ontario for committing more resources to increased veterinary education and addressing what many call a veterinary crisis in the province.
Last week, Lisa Thompson, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, announced nearly $15 million to fuel a collaborative Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program with the University of Guelph and Lakehead University. The initiative will increase veterinary program enrolment by 20 students a year.
That’s a significant increase. The entire country graduates about 350 veterinarians every year; around a third of them come from Guelph. Traditionally, the number of graduates have met the public’s needs for companion animal veterinarians, mostly replacing those who retired.
For livestock producers, it’s another matter. They’ve watched students’ interest in large animal veterinary practice dwindle, as the increasingly urban corps of veterinary students across the country steered away from the likes of cattle and pigs. The province and Ottawa funded an online telehealth service in 2021 for producers to try to ease the problem, but sometimes, for some problems, there’s no substitute for a farm visit by a qualified veterinarian.
Another big problem with the supply of new veterinarians is the explosion of pet ownership that started occurring even before the pandemic. Veterinarians are running on empty. Reports of them being overwhelmed and scaling back hours are common. Practices accepting new patients have fallen off.
As far back as 2021 the College of Veterinarians of Ontario sounded an alarm bell.
“Veterinary healthcare teams have been stretched to the breaking point,” it wrote on its website. “While workforce shortages are not uncommon in the rural and remote areas of Ontario, the current shortage of veterinarians is province-wide, including the Greater Toronto area.”
That was an a-ha moment. Most people have long believed that graduating more veterinarians was the answer. But setting up the infrastructure for adding students to a veterinary program is not that easy, given the amount of personal, hands-on training and facilities that are needed. It takes time, money and commitment.
However, when Toronto is directly affected, things change.
It’s unclear what exactly prompted the latest decision to finally be made to add more practitioners to the fold. The Guelph-Lakehead proposal was in front of the province since last summer. But it’s unlikely growing pressure for more rural service did not prompt the announcement, although the spin-off effect might help ease the rural veterinary shortage.
The province deserves kudos though for not letting the ball drop. It is also providing $900,000 over three years for what it calls the Veterinary Incentive Program, to bolster livestock veterinary care in underserviced areas. The money will provide support to 30 recent large animal veterinary graduates per year to relocate and practice in underserviced areas. And the Lakehead-Guelph program will help remote and rural students, particularly from the North, stay closer to home.
It’s a pleasure having a provincial minister of agriculture who gets it. Boosting veterinary capacity in both urban and rural Ontario is good for province. Healthy livestock supports the food supply, in Toronto and everywhere else in the province. And healthy companion animals are as important in Rosedale as they are in Elmira. Congratulations, minister.