Mia Jensen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter The Sudbury Star
Nadia Jireada’s cat was sick and she had no idea what to do about it.
It was late September and in the last two weeks, Jireada had called every animal hospital in the Greater Sudbury area, trying to find a veterinarian who would take a look at Tia, her 11-year-old gray tabby.
“She started to get very sick,” said Jiread. “She was five pounds and started to lose weight, which was concerning, and eating ravenously. "Then she developed a golf ball-sized mass on her side by her lung. So obviously, I couldn’t put it off any longer.”
Jireada needed to find a vet. But it didn’t take long for her to realize how challenging that would be.
“I just kept calling and calling and calling,” she said. “No one would take her. No one would even see her.”
DEMAND HIGHER THAN EVER
Jireada is among the many worried pet owners across Canada struggling to find veterinary care for her sick pet as vet clinics struggle with a major uptick in demand and a shortage of staff.
Michelle McParland, a veterinary technician at Martindale Animal Hospital, said clinics have been overwhelmed since the pandemic began.
“We’re playing catch-up,” she said. “(During the pandemic), consults became over the phone. We had to put regular, routine vaccinations and exams on hold just to deal. It sort of created a backlog.”
In 2020, just a few months into the pandemic, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association found that the industry could face a shortage of qualified professionals upward of 30 to 35 per cent within the next 10 to 15 years. But throughout the pandemic, that timeline has accelerated.
Currently in Greater Sudbury, there are 12 animal hospitals that care for domestic pets like cats and dogs, with two additional clinics in nearby Espanola. In all, there are about 30 qualified veterinarians in the area.
That’s fewer vets than just a few years ago.
In the last three years, at least four vets have either retired or moved away, and haven’t yet been replaced. And in just the last few months, two clinics have closed.
In May, Nickel City Animal Hospital closed and relocated as part of a merger with Walden Animal Hospital. A few weeks later, Nor-Ont Veterinary Hospital in Chelmsford shut its doors in August when the owner, Dr. Sheena McKeegan, retired at the age of 75 after 46 years in the industry.
McParland said the closures have put a strain on a system already feeling the pinch.
“Between those two practices, I’m sure there 10,000 clients,” she said. “Now they’ve been displaced and that’s a huge load right there on the system.”
Dr. Morag Maskery, at veterinarian at Lockerby Animal Hospital, said the veterinary industry is currently facing a “perfect storm” of issues.
“There’s lots of different issues that have made us incredibly busy and honestly not able to service people how we want to,” she said. “We do want to offer as much service and help to as many people as possible. It’s just that we’re stretched so thin, and it’s really hard.”
According to a survey by Pet Valu released last February, as many as three million new pets may have joined Canadian households during the pandemic.
Maskery said the number of new patients has made the difference in demand now versus before the pandemic “huge.”
“Pre-pandemic, we’d have a couple times a week where we’d have empty appointment slots,” she said. “In that time, you’d call back owners about blood work results or catch up a bit on extra reading or talk to your colleagues about cases. Now we are not only booked 100 per cent for our appointment and surgery slots, but we’re adding extras on top of that.”
At her clinic, Maskery said they’re often double-booked to fit more patients in. The vets also often work between appointments and during lunch breaks to check out pets brought in during their morning drop-off.
It doesn’t help that they’re also getting requests from pet owners outside of Sudbury who are facing similar challenges in their own cities.
“We’re getting requests from people from the Sault, Elliot Lake and North Bay, to even just vaccinate their puppies,” said Maskery.
She added that the influx is unlike anything she’s ever seen. “We’re not getting as many in the past two or three months, but before that, the number of new puppies we were saying every day was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it and I’ve been doing this for the last 24 years.”
All these factors boil down to the exact problem Jireada was facing: very few clinics are taking on new patients.
TROUBLE ATTRACTING VETS TO THE NORTH
When Jireada was calling clinics, she spoke with a number of sympathetic receptionists.
At one clinic, she was told that for cats, there was a waiting list of 150 patients ahead of her. At another, she was told to call the local emergency line, to see if the situation was severe enough to accommodate Tia without needing to be registered with a clinic. One suggested she look as far as Barrie.
“She was very empathetic,” said Jireada. “She described that the fact is there’s too much demand; staff is overworked. They’re burnt out and there isn’t enough staff to service the area.”
It’s something McParland has seen herself.
“For me, during the pandemic, I found it hard,” she said. “It was a huge challenge for us to not have them in the building and not have that sort of communication and care that we were so used to prior to the pandemic. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and everyone in the veterinary field loves what they do, (but) to tell you the truth, there’s a lot of mental health issues in this industry.”
Despite the increased need for veterinarians, McParland said graduation rates from vet programs have remained steady.
But in Northern Ontario, it has been difficult to bring in any of those new young professionals.
According to McParland, Sudbury lacks opportunities for veterinary specialists that are often a draw for graduates down south. Sudbury doesn’t have clinics or doctors who specialize in diverse areas of veterinary care, like internal medicine, animal behaviour, and orthopedic surgery. It also doesn’t have a 24-hour emergency clinic.
“There’s nothing to attract new graduates to head up this way,” said McParland. “It would be something to consider, in terms of what can make Northern Ontario an area for specialization and bringing in emergency medicine. That, I think, is needed in the area.”
Emergency care has been a challenge in the region for some time.
To make up for the lack of an emergency clinic, the local hospitals have collaborated with each other for years to split the load, according to Maskery.
“The last few years, we’ve had a very cooperative style emergency care service,” she said. “Every weeknight, every weekend has been divided up between the clinics. Everybody gets a few weekends and a few long weekends a year, and two or three weeks a month, to look after any emergency within the city limits.”
Until recently, an emergency hotline existed that allowed anyone registered with a local clinic to attend whichever clinic was on-call. In the last few weeks, they’ve transition to a telemedicine service called SmartVet, which offers online video consultations with patients before they even step foot in the clinic.
Costs to patients are still steep, comparable to in-person vet visits. But Maskery said they hope it will help them triage cases and lessen some of the demand.
“We are trying different strategies to mitigate it for everybody,” she said. “It’s almost become too much to handle.”
NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE NOW TO REGISTER WITH A CLINIC
Despite their new strategies, owners who haven’t registered their pet with a clinic are still being left behind. And now, it’s nearly impossible to get in.
“We are very aware of the situation and how hard it is and we are definitely working and doing what we can to accommodate,” said Maskery. “We realize it’s very hard for people to get in and we’re doing our best.”
But for some pets like Tia, it’s already too late.
Just two days after being interviewed by The Star for this article, Jireada emailed to say that Tia had died.
“She hardly ever meowed, but that morning, she looked up at me and meowed,” Jireada said in a follow-up interview. “I knew it was coming.”
The day she died, Tia was only three pounds. Despite three weeks of calling around and consulting a veterinarian virtually through SmartVet, Tia was never examined in a clinic.
Jireada said her death was long and painful.
“There was no point trying to get veterinary care or euthanasia,” she said. “I had tried for two weeks and it just seemed pointless at that stage. Me and my father, we just wrapped her up in a blanket and watched her suffer for a couple of hours. I’ve seen my father cry about twice in my life, and he had tears in his eyes. He just kept saying there’s nothing we can do for her.”
It’s an experience she never wants to relive. Now, she’s thinking about Samson, her big 15-year-old orange tabby. While he’s in good health now, she’s worried that she might end up in the same situation with him down the road.
“I’m going to keep searching,” she said. “I need to try and get him at least registered somewhere, where he can get emergency care if he needs it.”
Since Tia’s death, Jireada said she hasn’t been able to take much comfort in the sympathetic words that people have offered her in condolence.
“My animal suffered a terrible, agonizing death; there’s nothing people can say to that,” she said. “I’m angry. I’m filled with grief. And my heart is broken.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.