Amherstburg couple Donna and Geoff Hibbert wanted to see more after-hours emergency service veterinary clinics in the region after they waited eight hours at the only one in Windsor-Essex while their dog vomited blood.
Although the region has a number of animal clinics, the Walker Road Animal Hospital is the only service in this part of southwestern Ontario that operates a “24-hour emergency veterinary hospital.” This means that for animals who are sick after hours or on the weekends, Walker Road is their only option.
As a result, pet owners travel far for help and often end up waiting hours for their pets to receive care.
When the Hibberts noticed that their 11-year-old dog Kloe was sick and needed emergency attention on the evening of Jan. 13, they brought her in to Walker Road.
The couple said they were first told it would be a two-hour wait. Kloe was soon triaged in the hospital’s lobby and the Hibberts said they were told she didn’t have a high temperature and wasn’t dehydrated.
With every passing hour, the couple said the receptionists told them they would be next.
But their two-hour wait turned into eight before Kloe was admitted.
“Everybody talks about how… waiting rooms [for people] at the hospital are bad. We had no idea it was just as bad or worse for animals when they had to go to emergency hospitals,” Geoff said.
“So there’s definitely a need for an additional one in Essex County, but at this time that’s the only game in town, so there’s not a lot you can do, other than crossing the border.”
Long wait had tragic consequences
Kloe got a room at 1:40 am on Saturday and was found to be “terribly dehydrated,” according to the Hibberts.
By that point, the couple said their dog had thrown up about seven times and started to vomit blood.
“We’ve had animals all of our lives, and multiple animals, and I have never ever had an experience like that,” said Donna.
Kloe was kept at the hospital for treatment after she was diagnosed with a severe form of diabetes and a urinary tract infection. On Monday evening, the Hibberts said they were told that Kloe was doing better, but received a call on Tuesday morning that she had died.
Operations director Jennifer Beaudoin with VetStrategy — the company that oversees the Walker Road Animal Hospital — said it cannot comment on certain cases but that it “continues to value and strive to ensure our core principles are met in all our hospitals, caring for patients, clients , and people.”
Beaudoin added that “a global shortage of trained veterinary professionals, along with a significant increase in pandemic pet ownership, has put serious strains on vet practices and clinics across Canada.”
Veterinary services struggle with staff retention, mental health
Manjit Jammu, an owner and veterinarian at Clearwater Animal Hospital in Windsor, told CBC News that the industry is stretched thin.
During COVID-19, Jammu said they reduced their hours and have since struggled to increase them as they can’t find qualified staff. He said that the lack of emergency care clinics for pet owners in the region was worrisome.
“These days [it is] tough times for the veterinarians, and for the owners as well, because it’s hard to get good help,” said Jammu.
“We are shutting down about an hour or two hours before we used to do it, so it does add stress at Walker Road Animal Hospital … I can imagine all the [patients from] clinics from not only Windsor-Essex, but Chatham-Kent area too they all come there and then that becomes a big stress.”
He said he knew of clients waiting eight to 10 hours in the parking lot, but he added that the clinic is great and has always treated his clients well.
Jammu said that he was considering extending his hours in the spring to relieve some of the strains Walker Road Animal Hospital might be experiencing.
Workforce shortage across Ontario
While Jammu said he understood that emergencies were happening, to avoid being in an urgent situation he advised people to keep up with their pets’ yearly check-ins and to bring their pet in immediately when they noticed it might be sick.
But Windsor-Essex isn’t the only region dealing with this problem.
The College of Veterinarian’s Ontario (CVO) told CBC News that the province’s veterinary profession is in crisis right now.
CVO’s CEO Jan Robinson said there’s a shortage of veterinarians and challenges with staffing as employees are falling sick, all while there is a high demand for service.
As a result of staffing challenges, many clinics and emergency services have been reducing or changing their hours.
Looking at solutions
Of the 2,300 accredited veterinary facilities in the province, fewer than 30 provide emergency services for small animals, Robinson said.
“[Veterinarians] are feeling very bad about the fact that they can’t care for animals in the way that they are trained to and want to,” she said. “They are suffering as well under the angst that we all know the owners are feeling as well. “
She said veterinary services are not publicly funded and that there are no rules on how many hospitals and emergency services need to be available in one urban centre.
John Stevens, CEO of the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association, says the association is encouraging telemedicine, providing guidance on how to maximize the role of registered veterinary technicians, and supporting veterinarians’ health as they are experiencing “high rates of burnout, stress and other mental health concerns.”
Long-term, Stevens said, they are working to increase domestic training capacity and recruit and license more vets who are trained outside of Ontario.