Laura Perry knew she wanted to be a veterinarian by the time she was 16. After watching her cat succumb to the disease, Perry decided she never wanted to feel that helpless again when it came to animals.
But today, as a 30-year-old vet at Celtic Creatures Veterinary Clinic in Sydney, NS, she often still feels helpless, especially when it comes to her mental health.
“There are days when I like my work. spaying, surgery, helping animals, being with clients who truly appreciate and love their animals. There are definitely positives to that.
“It’s not that I hate it, it’s just that it’s slowly killing me.”
Long hours, on-call and understaffing all take their toll. The on-call part of the job is especially difficult, Perry said, but it’s what he’s required to do.
According to regulations from the Nova Scotia Veterinary Medical Association, which oversees the province’s veterinary industry, accredited veterinary clinics must provide immediate emergency care to their clients.
There are no emergency animal hospitals in Cape Breton or other rural parts of the province. Many veterinary clinics, especially in rural areas, have arrangements with other clinics to share after-hours emergency services.
In the case of Celtic Creatures, it shared on-call services with Northside Animal Hospital. But the company that owns the hospital, VetStrategy, pulled out of the contract in January.
Because of this, Perry deals with more shifts and more anxiety.
“It’s not just simple feelings of anxiety, taking Ativan and going through it, it’s the physical symptoms of panic that I’m calling for all day and all night,” she said.
He said that not knowing what emergency is waiting for him on the other end of the phone call can be paralyzing and prevent him from sleeping.
Symptoms range from “chest heaviness, headaches, constant sweating and agitation, to actual physical nausea to full blown panic attacks where it doesn’t matter if I’m safe, I’m home, not really. I have to call,” he said.
A few independent clinics remain
In 2020, VetStrategy purchased 360 veterinary hospitals across Canada, including four of the five clinics in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.
The company cites burnout and a shortage of veterinarians to end the agreement between Celtic Creatures and Northside Animal Hospital.
“We would like to continue to be on call with each clinic and be able to be there to support patients and clients. But when you’re running a clinic where a vet works 40 hours a week and then is on call one, two, three nights a week at four hospitals, that’s a lot,” said Marsha White, regional director of operations. Atlantic Canada branch of VetStrategy.
Both Perry and Celtic Creatures’ owner, Rebecca Korven, wrote to the Nova Scotia Veterinary Medical Association asking to be released from the on-call ambulance because of the loss of the general services contract and because Korven was recovering from a concussion. .
Corven is a vet and shares the workload with his staff. However, he had to cut those shifts short because he was unable to drive for some time at night. This caused him to worry about the added burden he was placing on his staff.
But the association’s accreditation committee rejected his request.
Similar regulations governing on-call services exist in most provinces. However, in Newfoundland and Labrador, the rules have recently changed to allow greater flexibility, including the ability to close for one 24-hour period per month without providing on-call services. British Columbia also changed its regulations in 2015 and no longer requires 24-hour duty.
Corven said there isn’t a lot of movement in Nova Scotia, and his mental health has suffered as a result.
“I don’t think the regulations right now really allow us to put our health first,” he said. “We have to provide that care, no matter how tired we are.”
Burnout and mental health issues
Jeremy Orr, president of the Nova Scotia Veterinary Medical Association, said it’s difficult to find a balance between the needs of pet owners and veterinarians.
Issues such as burnout and understaffing have emerged during the epidemic as pet ownership has increased, Orr said. While some of those problems are improving, he said, that’s not necessarily the case in rural areas, where recruiting and retaining vets can be more difficult.
Vets have been bringing their mental health issues to the fore in recent years with campaigns such as Not One More Vet, which aims to support vets in crisis. A study published in 2020 found that 26 percent of vets had suicidal thoughts. Perry has spoken publicly about his mental health issues and has written about the topic in a column for the Cape Breton Post.
Information Morning – Cape Breton6:57 a.mMental stress takes its toll on few vets
Orr said he is hesitant to drop the requirement for vets to provide on-call services, although his association is considering changes in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“If your pet gets hit by a car at two in the morning and you can’t find a vet … that’s not a situation we want our customers to be in,” she said. “There needs to be some ability to meet the middle ground.”
Orr said the legislation governing his association is more than 20 years old, and they will be considering some changes over the next year.
Tele-triage helps ease the burden
For now, the association recommends a “tele-triage” service to veterinary clinics. Their customers can call the company to help determine if their pet needs to be seen immediately, if they can wait until business hours, or if a virtual appointment with one of the company’s veterinarians would help.
“The response so far has been very positive, where the number of calls has dropped dramatically,” Orr said, adding that one clinic in the state told him their call volume had dropped by half.
That shows many of the calls the after-hours clinics get aren’t for true emergencies, he said.
Orr also believes that establishing more urgent care clinics outside of the Halifax area could minimize burnout and help recruit and retain vets in rural areas. But making this happen is a challenge because veterinary clinics are private businesses.
In the meantime, Corven said he was invited to join a planning group the association created to deal with the ongoing vet shortage.
“I hope to be able to push for change and really voice our concerns,” he said.
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