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No access to immunizations has Prince George dog owner worried about large-scale disease outbreak

Province-wide shortage of veterinarians continues to hamper B.C.'s animal healthcare system
Vet shortage Lynn Blatta wider
Lynn Blatta is worried about her her dogs Wagner, left, and Murphy, who have been unable to receive vaccinations since they moved to Prince George from Pitt Meadows in December.

A Prince George woman unable to get her dogs vaccinated because she’s not already a client of one of the city’s veterinarians says she would be willing to volunteer her services as a human health care professional to help staff a vaccination clinic for pets.

Lynn Blatta, who moved to the city from Pitt Meadows in December with her two dogs, says all she needs to eliminate her canine concerns is 15 minutes of a veterinarian’s time to perform a quick wellness check and give immunization boosters to her beloved critters.

“I started phoning the vets, begging them, and nothing,” said Blatta. “One clinic said they were running a clinic and they would get back to me and when they did get back to me they said my dog can’t be older than 12 months and that upset me.

“It bothers me because it seems so arbitrary with no thought behind it. From what I understand there’s quite a few people moving to Prince George and everybody’s got pets. Where are we a year or two from now if nobody can get their pet vaccinated?”

The problem stems from a province-wide shortage of animal doctors that has forced many B.C. veterinary clinics to stop taking on new clients and cut back on emergency after-hours services.

Blatta owns a 15-month-old Highland-Cairn terrier, Murphy, and 12-year-old Bernedoodle, Wagner, and both dogs need immunization booster shots. She’s contacted all seven veterinary clinics in Prince George and has been on three waitlists since April. Because none of those clinics have lost clients she has not been moved up on the list at any of them.

She is especially concerned about her younger dog getting parvo, a highly-infectious virus prevalent especially in puppies and adolescent dogs. If left untreated, advanced cases require labour-intensive care and hospitalization and it can be fatal. She phoned her former vet in Pitt Meadows asking if that clinic could send her the vaccine for her to administer but was told that’s not possible. The vet warned Blatta not to let Murphy socialize with other dogs or drink out of puddles until he’s had his booster shot.

“She said he has no protection against rabies and his immunity (to other diseases) will probably last a month and that’s it,” said Blatta. “I will find a solution, but it’s sort of eating away at my joy of raising my young dog.”

Blatta worked 12 years in Greater Vancouver hospitals as a residential care aid and has experience giving insulin injections to her mom and she can’t understand why she can’t give a needle to either of her pets to take care of their health and give her peace of mind.

She’s tried to be proactive and bought a first aid kid for her dogs, then took an online animal first-aid course that showed her how to perform CPR/artificial respiration and deal with wounds and check for vital signs. She wants to help as much as she can and is willing to organize a group of volunteers to alleviate the lack of available veterinary care.

”I understand the situation and the burnout (of overworked veterinarians) but what I see coming is problems down the road,” she said. “Part of healthcare towards people and animals is prevention. It’s always cheaper, and more kind and effective than putting out fires afterwards, and we’re not doing that. This is something that’s going to snowball.”

The five local veterinary clinics that form the Prince George Urgent Care Group have pooled their resources to offer immunization clinics for unattached clients but they are only open to puppies and kittens younger than one year old. Green Mobile Veterinary Clinic put on the first puppy/kitten clinic in July and a second clinic will happen on Friday between 9 a .m. and 1 p.m. at Hart Family Veterinary Clinic, 3708 Austin Road. Clients will be served to on a first-come, first-serve basis and no sick animals will be seen.

Prince George Animal Hospital is also planning a puppy/kitten clinic for September. Bringing your pet to any of those clinics will not be the ticket to a longstanding vet-client relationship and pet owners will still have to wait until a clinic begins taking on new patients. Office manager Heather Hannan says puppies and kittens are at most risk of developing diseases such as parvo and rabies and the public clinics have to be limited to animals a year or younger to reduce the risk of a disease outbreak. She said the urgent care group might consider expanding the reach of its immunization clinics to older animals but that depends on the availability of the doctors and how much demand there is for the puppy/kitten clinics.

“Our doctors are already working like crazy and we don’t want to lose them because that would leave the city in worse shape,” said Hannam. “If we have a parvo outbreak we would be in even more trouble so that’s why we want to see these puppies and kittens getting vaccinated. It would be lovely if we could offer something, especially for those first annual (booster shots) but right now we just have to take care of that most urgent need.”

Hannam understands the frustration pet owners are feeling, not being able to receive non-urgent pet care, and their inability to get vaccines is only part of the problem. She’s also worried about overpopulation, with demand for spay and neutering procedures exceeding the veterinary community’s ability to perform those services. She’s taken multiple calls from people trying to bring in their friends’ and relatives’ pets under their names.

“I understand why they’re doing it, but we don’t have enough doctors,” said Hannam. “We want to provide optimal care for our current patients and clients. It’s not a great situation.”

The provincial government announced in April it is doubling from 20 to 40 the number of subsidized seats for students from British Columbia to attend the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon at a cost of $10.7 million. That was in response to a study by the Ministry of Advanced Education, Skills and Training which concluded the province will be short of 100 veterinarians per year for each of the subsequent five years, which would leave B.C. needing 500 more veterinarians by 2024. 

Asked about Blatta’s suggestion that the urgent care group allow volunteers to participate in the vaccination clinics to allow more pets to receive their shots, Hannam said a doctor’s care would still be required to examine each animal before giving it a vaccine. Her facility also has to maintain American Animal Hospital Association-accredited facility standards for staff training which would preclude volunteers administering immunization shots. The Prince George Animal Hospital has seven fully-licenced veterinarians but most work just four days per week and one is there only two days per week.

“We’ve hired a lot of support staff to try to cut down on the demand of our doctors’ time, but a lot of it is the training,” Hannam said. “They have to do a wellness exam in order to give a vaccine to make sure the animal’s healthy and only a doctor can do the rabies vaccine.”

While there’s no immediate solution, Hannam encourages pet owners to remain patient and persistent.

“We’ve been telling people to keep checking around because sometimes some clinics may find they’re not booking as far out so they may open up and take a few clients,” said Hannam. “We haven’t made wait lists here because they would be out of control.

“We really feel for the people wanting to get in - we’re not happy turning anybody away, it stresses our staff out. People are angry and it creates a lot of anxiety for our staff when they get yelled and sworn at and hung up on. They don’t want to have to say no but they just have to or else we’re going to lose our doctors.”

Despite the crunch on veterinary services, the on-call clinic will not turn away people who bring in extremely sick or critically-injured pets, regardless of whether they are clients of the clinic, as long as it doesn’t happen during off hours. The Urgent Care Group is available for emergency care on weekdays until 10 p.m. and from 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. on weekends.

Outside of those hours, for pet owners whose animals face life-threatening situations, the only resort is to access a website - www.vettriage.com – to connect virtually to a qualified technician of veterinarian. If an immediate intervention is needed, pet owners might be forced to travel to another city that has a 24-hour emergency care centre. Kelowna, Vancouver, Calgary or Edmonton are the closest options for Prince George residents. Kamloops also lacks an emergency care clinic that provides 24-hour care for animals.