Dr. Taryn Ellis Talks Pandemic Puppies, Canada’s Veterinarian Shortage and Socks!
Despite a busy schedule, Dr. Taryn Ellis was gracious enough to give of her time and answer some questions about what it’s like to be a veterinarian (9.5 years) at a small animal veterinary clinic during the Pandemic. Shortages of Veterinarians across Canada have been raising alarms for years, but it is only just now when so many clinics are dealing with staffing shortages for other reasons (ie. COVID infections and increased demand for services for example) that this issue is gaining more media attention. Chances are, if you’ve had to wait more than usual for your pet’s recent vet appointment, it was due to a staffing shortage.
What do you enjoy most about the work that you do?
I enjoy building relationships with my clients. I enjoy helping animals have an improved quality of life which helps their people too. Playing with puppies and kittens during their visits can be pretty rewarding as well :-)
Are you able to share a funny story about an animal that you have worked with during your career?
There was a cat recovering in its cage after spay surgery. She had started licking her incision so an e-collar/’cone of shame’/party hat was placed on her to prevent her from damaging her incision. Instantly she started backing up and continued to do this hoping that she could back out of the collar.
Do you have a ‘strange but true’ story from your time working as a veterinarian that you could share?
The strange things that cats and dogs ingest. Some are able to pass, and some may need a scoping procedure or surgery to remove if they get stuck in the gastrointestinal tract. Socks, socks, socks, toy mouse, needles from a fake Christmas tree, peach pit, soother, socks, part of a sleeping bag, corn cob, corn cob, socks, corn cob, balls, tennis balls, entire chocolate money cake with coins + saran wrap and metal skewers holding saran off of cake, fishhooks, rocks, and many other items that could not be identified. Every veterinarian’s list will be different, but you’d likely see some common offenders like socks and corn cobs.
What is the most challenging aspect about your job?
A challenging aspect to my job is the animals that you’re not able to fix, whether it be due to the severity of the animal’s disease, or financial limitations or despite a full work-up and appropriate treatment, the animal still succumbs to the disease.
Personally, I also find difficult [human] clients challenging. People love their pets and when they’re sick or injured it can be very emotional for owners. They’re feeling stress, anxiety, fear, uncertainty, heartbreak - lots of difficult emotions. Then when you add in the cost of care which is typically unplanned for, you can see some people at their worst. I’ve had owners shame, blame, and disrespect myself and staff members when we are all just trying to help them. This was heightened during the pandemic. The majority of clients I deal with are lovely, but there a few difficult clients that I deal with, that do stick with me.
What do you find is the most rewarding part of your work?
Any animal improving under my care is rewarding, but especially the complicated or difficult cases that have had multiple concurrent diseases to treat/control, or a rare condition that was challenging to diagnose/treat. Along with this is seeing the owners joy when their pet is doing better. The human animal bond is a beautiful thing!
What has been the most significant change to how you do your job during the years of the Pandemic?
Appointments were curbside for the better part of 2 years. This meant that only the animals came into the clinic while owners waited outside of the clinic. The lack of in person interaction with clients was hard. I’m a visual person so I draw pictures, charts, lists for owners when I am explaining conditions, going over options, diagnostics, treatments and monitoring etc. I can’t see an owner’s facial expression or body language over the phone which I find can be helpful to know roughly how the owner is feeling with the information I am providing. It also caused a lot of inefficiency. Staff needed to go out to get the animals and a brief history from the owners. After a physical exam I would discuss my findings with the owners on the phone and discuss next steps and it was a lot of back and forth over the phone. Appointments that were previously 30 minutes were extended to 45 minutes for most of the time that curbside appointments continued.
Figures from the Canadian Animal Health Institute indicate that pet ownership started taking off around 2017 when the country’s dog population grew from 7.6 million in 2016 to 8.3 million in 2018.  A survey conducted by Narrative Research in November 2020 found at that time 18% of current pet owners obtained a new pet since the start of the pandemic. With the growth in pet ownership in the years leading up to the Pandemic, and then the ‘Pet Boom’ of the Pandemic, how has this incredible growth impacted your clinic?
My clinic has definitely been much busier during the years of the pandemic as I believe most have been. I think a few things came together to create this. The longer appointment times means that fewer appointments fit into the day, catch-up from March 2020 to May 2020 when only emergency cases could be seen so vaccinations and elective surgeries were delayed and lastly people from the city have chosen to move to Collingwood, or people with second homes here chose to move here temporarily during the pandemic to escape the city. Also, lots of people were getting pets so we saw lots of puppies and some kittens too. Some of these people were well seasoned pet owners, but I saw several people where this was their first pet. Understandably, what comes with that is more questions, queries, and concerns so longer discussions during the appointments and more phone calls outside of appointment times.
Have you noticed any behaviour differences in the pandemic pets coming in for care at your clinic? Is there any general advice that you can offer pet parents?
Early on in the pandemic the puppies coming in did seem to be more on the nervous/timid side. Part of this could have been due to the fact that owners were not allowed into the building, so they were coming in by themselves but as we got further into the pandemic out of the lockdown the puppies coming in did seem less timid than the initial group. Therefore, I do suspect the strict isolation at the beginning had an effect on the pup’s socialization. This makes sense as there’s an important socialization period that includes the first 2 months after dogs are usually brought home from breeders. Owners shouldn’t be too hard on themselves as there was no other choice at that time. Some owners may have noticed that this has already righted itself now that there have been more socialization opportunities.
For the more timid dogs you want to be cautious not to overwhelm them too much, say by taking them to a dog park where you don’t know the behaviour status of the other dogs and may be too much stimulation for a more timid dog. Best to start gradual with one-on-one playdates with calm, relaxed, well socialized friendly dogs. On walks bring high value treats (eg. dried liver treats) so that when you see a dog approaching you can get your dog to sit and do tricks for treats so that there’s a positive connection formed with seeing another dog.
In April of last year, the results of a 2020 study done by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) were released. It was confirmed that in most parts of Canada the demand for veterinary services had or would exceed capacity. Has your clinic experienced staffing shortages? Do you anticipate this to be a future issue in the Collingwood area?
Yes, there’s definitely staffing shortages in Collingwood. This is the case for veterinarians as well as veterinary technicians. This shortage is across the province, country and into the United States as well. It’s a widespread problem.
According to a recent TVO article: “As of 2020, Ontario had 5,125 licensed vets, and estimates suggest that number should increase by 4 per cent a year to better meet demand.”  What do you think can be done, either by the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph (Ontario’s only Veterinarian College) or the provincial Government to deal with the shortage of Veterinarians in Ontario?
I read recently about a metaphor comparing the number of practicing veterinarians to a bathtub full of water with the drain open. The water going down represents veterinarians leaving practice on stress leaves/burnout. Therefore, it’s not an easy fix like just increasing the number of people admitted to the veterinary program each year. We need to investigate further to figure out how to slow/stop the loss of veterinarians from the profession, but this too will not be an easy fix. There is much more focus now on work/life balance, and mental health compared to when I went through school or was a new grad so that is promising and positive change. The conversation has begun and is starting to fuel important changes.
Given the long hours and stress that is involved with the work that you do, are there any activities or approaches that your workplace has put in place to support staff in maintaining their own physical/mental health and work/personal life balance?
At my workplace we tend to look after our own physical/mental health as individuals and I think our stress relief activities do vary greatly among the group. For me it’s exercise, time spent in nature and family time. I do think the work/life balance mentality has changed greatly since I graduated. Initially it was always 40+ hours a week and usually as the new veterinarian you would be scheduled for the less sought-after times such as evenings, weekends etc. Now most of the jobs being advertised are for 30-35 hours per week. Some don’t have weekends or evenings and often there’s no ‘on-call’ due to availability of nearby emergency clinics. I have heard of some practices that do check in daily to weekly as to how staff members’ mental health and stress levels are, and I think that’s great - very supportive and proactive.
**UPDATE** September 14th, 2022
The article listed below describes how the veterinarian shortage continues and how Canadian pet owners are forced to get resourceful to care for their injured pets. There are two approaches discussed in this article that are perhaps starting to make a small impact on the wait times for veterinarian care in some areas - telemedicine and the licensing of internationally trained veterinarians. Let's hope initiatives like these continue to expand to ensure pet owners aren't left with even less access veterinarian resources.
Ontario pet owners struggling to find animal care amid shortage of vets
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