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B.C. veterinarians beyond 'breaking point' as pressure, burnout mounts

The province's veterinarians are facing burnout, stress and mental health crises due to a shortage of workers.

This story contains sensitive subject matter related to suicide and may be distressing to some readers. If you or someone you know needs support, there are a variety of options: 1-800-784-2433, KUU-US Indigenous crisis line (1-800-588-8717), and this Mental Health Supports website.


A British Columbian veterinarian is sounding the alarm on the very industry she’s dedicated her life to. 

The woman, who refers to herself as Dr. Em, as she fears backlash for speaking out, posted an emotional video online hoping people will understand the pressures being placed on the veterinary medicine field in B.C. 

“My profession is hurting and it is in trouble,” she says. “We need things to change to reduce some of the stressors.” 

According to her, the industry was struggling before the COVID-19 pandemic. Even more strain was placed on staff as anxiety levels skyrocketed and people purchased pandemic puppies. 

"The industry as a whole is feeling overwhelmed,” she says. 

Dr. Em says the pressure on the industry is the worst she’s ever experienced. 

“There is the emotional distress on behalf of the owner and often that gets displaced on veterinarian staff who are just trying to help,” she says. 

According to the Society of BC Veterinarians, many vets are working 12- to 14-hour days.

"They’re exhausted, they’re not tired, they’re exhausted. They have no time to eat during the day, they don’t see their families, they are getting burned out, their staff is getting burned out,” says executive director Corey Van't Haaff.

She adds she has veterinarians, at all different stages of their careers, calling her frightened and in tears, stating they have to stop or quit.

"Everybody is overwhelmed because of the shortage of veterinarians, which was made worse because of COVID,” she says. "Veterinarians in British Columbia are really beyond the breaking point.”

Van't Haaff and the society say more veterinarians are needed so pressure and stress aren’t put on the ones currently working.

“We are hearing statistically... that the number of suicides, or suicide attempts, or suicidal thoughts among veterinarians are rising disproportionately from other occupations and populations,” she says.

Dr. Em shared with Glacier Media that colleagues of hers have taken their lives. 

"I know of too many to count, and then four that were a lot closer to me,” she says. "It’s a lot of loss.” 

When she describes her industry, she says it’s maxed out.

"There is definitely guilt and just a feeling of being overwhelmed all the time and like you can’t ever catch up and what makes that additionally challenging is there is no real signs of it improving in the future,” she says. "This is for the foreseeable future what it is going to be like... when you can’t or don’t get a break, that is crushing."

Adding to the pressure, is people being aggressive or rude toward staff. 

“People seem to be under so much strain there is emotional abuse of vet clinic staff when we can’t immediately meet a perceived need that somebody has,” says Dr. Em.

Long-time veterinarian Dr. Al Longair has been working in Duncan for more than four decades and says he too is concerned and has had a colleague die by suicide. 

"It’s not a new thing, but it does seem to be increasing,” he says. 

"Everybody is quite stressed and you don’t really want to talk to many other vets because it can bring you down because stress is a hard factor, and COVID-19 just made a problem dramatically worse."

Longair says receptionists in the clinic often take the brunt of disgruntled, rude pet parents.

"We’ve had a few episodes where it got a little nasty. We’ve been able to work our way through most of them,” he says. 

Of his biggest concerns, is retirement. 

"I am concerned about the future when I finally retire, will there be somebody who can fill some of my workload or am I going to feel guilty because I know they’re having to wait longer now?” he says. 

It’s a problem the Society of BC Veterinarians has been working to solve, trying to get more B.C. veterinarians graduated so they can start working.

SHORTAGE OF VETS IN B.C. 

Each year, 20 seats at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon are designated for British Columbia students.

Through an agreement called the Interprovincial Agreement (IPA), funding is provided for these students by the province. These students, according to the Society of BC Veterinarians, pay $11,000 in tuition each year, for four years. 

In addition to these seats, there are 25 non-IPA, or non-funded seats, which cost $69,000 per year, comparable to ‘international veterinary school tuition rates.’  

Van't Haaff says veterinarians currently working in the field are burned out and overworked, and that having more veterinarians would help dramatically. 

"There are not enough veterinarians and the demand is increasing,” she says.

The Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training says additional seats are available, which increases the number of B.C. students from 20 to 30, an additional 10. 

"Right now, B.C. sends 20 students to Western College of Veterinary Medicine and there is that ability to double it to 40 if we can get the funding from the Ministry of Advanced Education. So far, we have not been able to do that,” says Van't Haaff.

Through an email exchange with the ministry, Glacier Media has confirmed the additional 10 students are paying significantly more in tuition, a total of $69,000 per year as compared to their fellow IPA classmates.

“Twelve B.C. students were admitted into non-IPA seats. Another 13 non-IPA seats were filled by other students from across Western Canada,” states a ministry spokesperson in an email. 

Van't Haaff says those additional graduates would be very useful for the industry.

"Those extra 20 graduates would be gobbled up, they would have full-time jobs offered to them before they graduate. We need them, we need them now,” she says. 

The ministry added in their communication that there are grant supports available to non-IPA students. 

"Eligible students enrolled in a program under two years in length may receive up to $4,000 a year in B.C. Access Grant support. Eligible students enrolled in a program of more than two years may receive up to $1,000 a year in B.C. Access Grant support,” says the spokesperson. "Students may, in addition, receive up to $6,000 under the Canada Student Grant for Full-Time Students program.”

Longair says this is simply not reasonable. 

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” he says. “It’s very frustrating.” 

‘WE WANT TO TAKE CARE OF THE VETERINARIAN PROFESSIONALS'

An international organization based out of San Francisco has been offering support to veterinary staff around the world since 2014. 

Not One More Vet (NOMV) has a mission to provide veterinarians, front-desk staff, nurses and technicians with resources. 

Executive director Darlene Bos says they have volunteers across Canada and on Vancouver Island.

"There is a general issue of making sure our veterinarian professionals are well, that they aren’t dealing with intense stresses whether they be financial or with clients, so that they can do their job every day and go home and be well and safe,” says Bos. 

The American admits it’s difficult to have statistics on the numbers of deaths. 

"We know this problem has existed for a long time and it wasn’t being spoken about,” she says. "This level of awareness and with it coming understanding is so hopeful to me.”

In an email, the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training acknowledges the strain placed on veterinarians and says the province is working to offer more mental health supports for workers, including low- and no-cost counselling services. A newly launched government website has also been created to help people find mental health services. 

The province has also created a phone line (1-800-784-2433) for anyone needing help. There's also a KUU-US Indigenous crisis line (1-800-588-8717). 

Both Longair and Dr. Em say it's important for pet owners to listen to to their vet's advice, and work collaboratively for their pet's health.

"We do care about their animal, that is a priority, every staff member here,” says Longair. "We are not miracle workers, we do the best we can, but it’s a team effort.”

For Dr. Em, owners being responsible and having pet insurance or planning far in advance for appointments is helpful. Kindness, meanwhile, goes a long way.

“Just saying 'thank you,' that would be wonderful,” she says.