Death of veterinarian highlights critical need for more large-animal vets in West Quebec

Efforts are being made by animal owners and Quebec's only veterinary college to encourage young veterinarians to choose to work with large animals, like cattle and horses, to address a shortage that has worsened in recent years.

Fewer young vets choosing to work with large animals

A woman stands by a fence, behind the fence are two horses.
Stephanie Sitzberger stands outside on her property in Gatineau. She is one of several Pontiac horse owners trying to find solutions to the absence of large-animal veterinary care in the region. (Rachel Watts/CBC)

An "apocalyptic storm" hit the Pontiac area late at night on Oct. 31, 2019, right when Stephanie Sitzberger's horse was running a "crazy high fever".

When she was unable to transport the horse in a trailer due to the weather, she says her large-animal veterinarian, Andrea Kelly, drove more than 70 kilometres from her home in Kemptville, Ont., to Luskville, Que., where the horse was being looked after by a friend.

"(She) did what she needed to do in order to get the fever down and help him be OK," said Sitzberger, who owns nine horses in addition to around 60 head of grass-fed cattle in Gatineau, Que.

"It's usually late nights and some kind of emergency thing where it solidifies the relationship, the trust, the respect."

Dr. Kelly was a beloved veterinarian for horse and animal owners in both the Pontiac and Ottawa areas.

In the weeks since Kelly took her life, the community has struggled with the grief of losing a friend — and the realization that the shortage of large-animal veterinarians desperately needs to be addressed, for the sake of clients, animals and overworked vets.

A woman smiles at a gleaming chestnut horse.
Andrea Goffart is one of the members of the new Pontiac working group trying to find solutions and deal with the shortage and strain on large animal vets following the death of veterinarian Andrea Kelly. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

'Crisis level' situation

Some of Kelly's clients, like Andrea Goffart, a farm owner in Quyon, Que., have banded together to come up with solutions.

Goffart says Kelly was the only Ontario vet she knew who was certified to practise in Quebec.

"We're concerned about our animals, we're sad about the situation our vets are under and we see that if we don't do something about it, it's just going to get worse," said Goffart.

Goffart says the veterinarian situation in the region got to the "crisis level" five years ago.

"It's brought our community together a lot but it's a worry," said Goffart. "You think about your animals and you think 'OK, when I go out in the morning I hope nobody's cut their leg off or something because horses seem to attract accidents. It's just the way they are."

Once a horse is born they seem to spend the rest of their lives endangering themselves, says Sitzberger.

"They're super delicate for the size, they have extremely delicate digestive systems, their feet, their legs, everything. Just keeping them healthy and well is a feat, that's for sure," said Sitzberger.

A woman with a ponytail bends near a foal.
Horse owner Siri Ingebrigtsen says transporting a horse by trailer is possible when the medical situation is not urgent. (Olivier Plante/CBC)

Hoping for the best

Both women say it's more important than ever to keep their animals healthy because the options are limited if something goes wrong.

"I don't have anybody. I don't have anybody that I can call on a pager at 10 p.m. who I know will show up," said Sitzberger. "In the short term, I'm gonna just kind of hope for the best."

Horse owners have two options now. They can either take their horses by trailer to a veterinarian clinic in Ontario, or, if the situation is dire, put them down. But even that drastic measure requires a veterinarian, says Siri Ingebrigtsen, co-owner of Avant-Garde farm in Luskville, Que.

"We have the vet office but they're in Ontario so we have to ship to them. I'm counting two hours each way plus the time it takes down there," said Ingebrigtsen, who was getting ready to transport her twin foals for a check up in Prescott, Ont.

That works for checkups and routine visits. But in the event of an emergency — colic, a twisted gut or a broken leg — owners might have to put the animal down.

"Right now our only way of doing that is to call in a farmer with a gun," said Ingebrigtsen.

Four horses graze in the foreground. In the background, farm buildings.
Some of Andrea Goffart’s horses graze on her property in Pontiac, Que. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Encouraging veterinary students to choose large animals

Erin Kelly, Andrea Kelly's sister, says her sister was the only veterinarian at her practice in Kemptville, Ont.. After she bought the practice from the retiring veterinarian in 2018 she hired on two veterinarians who both ended up leaving for different reasons.

Erin said her sister was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week and could not find staff to help her because there are so few vets willing to work with large animals.

"I can only imagine how much stress and pressure it is on just a solo practitioner," said Dr. Aja Harvey, an equine veterinarian specializing in internal medicine at a clinic in New Jersey.

She noted that the shortage of large-animal veterinarians can be seen in the U.S. as well, especially as a lot of older vets are "aging out."

Added to this, in the United States, typically 90 to 95 per cent of a graduating class in veterinary medicine choose to become small-animal veterinarians, said Harvey. The remaining five to 10 per cent are divided between large animals and exotics.

Harvey said she is one of about 200 equine internal medicine specialists in the U.S., for an estimated 3.8 million horses.

Grey mare grazing.
Essie, an Arabian mare, was one of Andrea Kelly's patients. With more young vets coming from urban centres, fewer of them are interested in working with large animals like horses. (Olivier Plante/CBC)

Here in Canada, the statistics are similar. Most veterinarians want to work with small animals, said Dr. Marie Archambault, professor and vice-dean for academic and student affairs at Université de Montréal faculty of veterinary medicine in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que.

She says it's something that is top of mind for the only veterinary school in Quebec, where only seven to nine per cent of graduates as of 2015 were going into equine medicine, for example.

The school has noticed that more of its students come from urban areas and are less interested in working with horses and other farm animals.

To correct the situation, when she was first appointed four years ago, Archambault created a new admission category by opening and reserving 15 spaces of the 96 availablle for people interested in working with large animals.

Those students must complete 500 hours of practical work with large animals, as part of their training.

"Basically, out of 96, I'm making sure that there will be at least a minimum of 15 people that will finish and will want to work [with] large animals," Archambault said.

She points out that the first class with this demographic will be graduating next year and that should mean more large-animal veterinarians in two years.

A woman looks into the eyes of a grey mare.
Siri Ingebrigtsen is one of the members of a working group trying to find solutions to the veterinarian shortage. (Olivier Plante/CBC)

Pontiac working group trying to find solutions

Ingebrigtsen, Sitzberger and Goffart are some of the horse owners in the Pontiac area trying to address the current situation.

"We need solutions," said Goffart.

Following Kelly's death, they formed a working group to develop proposals for their provincial association, the vet school and the Agriculture Ministry, which sets standards of care from animal owners — standards that include providing veterinary care.

"At this point we can't live up to the values and ethics of an animal owner," Goffart said.

In Pontiac specifically, part of the problem relates to how few Ottawa-area veterinarians are able to practise in Quebec, said Goffart. Considering Pontiac is closer to Ottawa than Montreal, Goffarts says many animal owners choose to source care from just across the river.

She says not only do veterinarians from outside of the province have to pass a medical certification test but they also need to meet mandatory language requirements.

Ingebrigtsen says the groups has discussed the possibility of working with a clinic in Ontario.

"That's one idea, to get Ontario vets licensed up here. And I believe there might be one more (veterinarian) that's working on her French to pass the language test," said Ingebrigtsen.

WATCH | Veterinarian's sister, fiancé share memories:

‘Gentle and tender and caring’ says sister of vet who died by suicide

5 months ago
Duration 0:44
Sister and fiancé of Andrea Kelly share loving memories of the beloved equine veterinarian in the Ottawa and Pontiac area.

The group is also exploring the possibility of asking the Saint-Hyacinthe veterinary school to set up a remote clinic run by a veterinarian and fourth-year students. Ingebrigtsen says having a clinic every two or four months would allow communities to get their animals routine procedures — such as vaccinations — taken care of.

Dr. Archambault says the Université de Montréal is open to discussing ways the veterinary school can help improve the current situation.

"I'm moved by what happened to Andrea Kelly," said Archambault. "We are an administration that listens to our students, we listen to the veterinarians, we want to know their thoughts. We want to improve, we are at their service."

Goffart says they hope to encourage veterinarians and students from both provinces to regroup and practise in rural areas, so that individuals don't experience the stresses of working on their own.

"We wouldn't want to see one person come out and burn out, we'd like to see a bunch of people," said Goffart.

LISTEN | Rachel Watts reports on the shortage of veterinarians:
Andrea Kelly took her own life at the end of July. She was a veterinarian based in Kemptville and served 600 clients in both Quebec and Ontario. Access vet care has been a longstanding issue in ithe region. CBC reporter Rachel Watts has been looking into this story and joins guest host Kim Garritty in studio.

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Rachel Watts

CBC journalist

Rachel Watts is a journalist with CBC News in Quebec City. Originally from Montreal, she enjoys covering stories in the province of Quebec.