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Cally Merritt, a registered veterinary technician at the Dover Animal Hospital, in Port Dover, spends some quality time at home in Canfield with dogs Ranger (big) and Lincoln. Merritt is seeing a large increase in hospital visits (who now triple books appointments to meet the needs) since the pandemic started which she attributes to people spending more time at home with their pets and thus becoming more attune their changes in health.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Like a lot of small-town communities, Port Dover, Ont., has seen a boom in the past year. Not just in real estate – prices in the area are up 33 per cent year over year – but in another hallmark of home life: cats and dogs.

“There are so many new pets, it is crazy to keep up,” said Cally Merritt, a registered veterinary technician at the Dover Animal Hospital. “We probably get 10 phone calls a day from people getting new pets.”

To try to meet demand, the clinic has hired new staff and double-, triple- and even quadruple-booked appointments. Still, Ms. Merritt said, she and her colleagues can barely keep up.

“I don’t know if anyone has even gotten a lunch break in the last year,” she said.

Many Canadians cooped up at home during the COVID-19 pandemic have compensated for a lack of activities and personal contact by investing in a new animal companion – and those who already had pets are spending a lot more time with them, making it easier to spot health issues that might have been missed before. All this is causing a boom in demand for veterinary services across the country, putting pressure on an industry that was already struggling to train and retain enough talent to meet clients’ needs.

Even before the pandemic, pet ownership was on the rise. According to Statistics Canada, average household spending on pet expenses (including the purchase of pets) was up 64 per cent over the past decade. Pet retail stores have also seen increased demand, and The Globe and Mail reported earlier this month that chain Pet Valu Canada planned to go public and raise $300-million.

The Canadian Animal Health Institute estimates there were 7.7 million dogs and 8.1 million cats in Canadian households in 2020, and a survey the group released in February reported cat owners, in particular, were visiting veterinarians more often than they had before the pandemic.

Enid Stiles, a Montreal veterinarian and president of the Canadian Veterinary Medicine Association, said members of her association have reported revenue from their practices has gone up anywhere from 10 per cent to 30 per cent over the past year. Most of that extra money has gone to staffing, Dr. Stiles said, with her own practice’s payroll costs up 20 per cent in the past year.

She said staffing remains a major bottleneck as offices have trouble keeping pace with the demand.

“When, in my life as a business owner, did I ever think I would turn away new clients?” she said.

Overall employment at veterinary offices was 37,000 in April, 2021, up from 29,600 in April, 2019, according to Statistics Canada. But Dr. Stiles said veterinary technicians – the nurses of animal care – have a high attrition rate, which is partly because of low pay. She said offices are responding by raising service fees to pay staff better.

For veterinarians, demand remains high. A 2020 work force study conducted by Kynetec on behalf of the CVMA suggested employment of veterinarians has grown steadily, to almost 13,000 in 2019 from 10,000 in 2007. The study also found that the proportion of new graduates in the field was about 3 per cent each year – the same number of veterinarians who were retiring. That suggests Canadian veterinary schools were graduating just enough vets to replace those leaving the field, but struggling to keep up with increased demand from consumers. There were 675 job vacancies for veterinarians in the fourth quarter of 2020, up from 365 the year before, according to Statistics Canada.

One new grad is Melanie Moore, who wrapped up her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine studies at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph this month.

Dr. Moore said when the pandemic started, she worried it could have a negative effect on the industry. Instead, she said, the school’s job boards are filled with employers looking to hire new graduates.

“I would say I’m a little overwhelmed,” she said. “There are a lot of jobs out there for us now. ... It’s honestly the prime time to come out and be a vet.”

Dr. Moore said she has decided to go with a role at the Sarnia & District Humane Society. She’s also planning to continue pushing for more diversity in the profession through a non-profit she started with two other Black veterinary students last year called the Canadian Vibe Network.

As each older veterinarian retires, though, the nature of running a veterinary business changes a little more. Traditionally, animal hospitals were owned and run by one vet or a small group of them, who then employed other veterinarians, veterinary technicians and support staff. A vet who was ready to retire would often sell the practice or a stake in it to a younger vet who was starting out.

In recent years, however, retiring animal doctors have become more likely to consider selling their practices to a chain. Consolidation of clinics now accounts for a growing share of Canada’s roughly 3,300 practices.

Fraser Davidson, a veterinarian in British Columbia, said he was looking to purchase the clinic of a retiring doctor when he and his family moved from Vancouver to Squamish last year. But when financial discussions started, he realized that as an independent business owner, he wouldn’t have the same resources as a large corporation; he was prepared to offer three to five times the practice’s net profit, while a corporate chain could offer eight to 10 times.

“They could price-war me under the ground,” Dr. Davidson said.

In the end, he said, it was cheaper for him to build a new practice from scratch at a cost of about $1-million, than come up with an estimated $1.5-million to buy the existing clinic. And Dr. Davidson expects to make more money as a practice owner than as an employee in someone else’s practice, where he said he would expect to earn $100,000 to $120,000 a year.

While operating an independent clinic gives veterinarians more control over how they work, being part of a chain can also come with benefits. Some veterinarians say they’d rather focus on the medicine part of their job than on the business administration, and working for a company allows that. Critics of chains say corporate ownership could degrade animal care long-term by putting a focus on profits over medical advice.

The largest chain is VetStrategy, which has acquired about 240 clinics since it was founded in 2006, or about 8 per cent of all practices in Canada. The company got a financial boost last year when U.S. private-equity firm Berkshire Partners bought a 70-per-cent stake in a deal that valued VetStrategy at a reported $1.4-billion.

Orin Litman, chief executive officer of VetStrategy, said his group helps by taking some of the administrative burden off of running a clinic, as well as using scale to purchase supplies at cheaper rates and make hiring easier. And, he said, he doesn’t see independent clinics going away any time soon.

“I think that a good mix in the industry provides balance,” Mr. Litman said.

But whatever the pandemic has done to the finances of working as a vet, the bottom line is that it has at least temporarily greatly changed the experience.

Most clinics across the country have operated as a curbside service: Pet owners drop their companions off at the front door, where they are whisked away to be treated. Staff communicate with owners by phoning or sending texts or pictures. That’s increased the stress for owners on the receiving end and staff who have to manage care at a distance.

It has also brought even more difficulty to the most difficult experience an owner can have: watching their terminally ill cat or dog be put down.

Karen Allen, a veterinarian who owns a rural animal hospital east of Edmonton, said euthanasia has been the most challenging procedure to manage with COVID-19 protocols.

In some cases, she’s given a dog or cat a sedative so they can fall asleep in their owner’s arms outside the clinic, before being brought back inside by staff for the lethal injection. In other cases, when the weather is nice, they’ve done the euthanasia outside. If the dog is big enough, she said, they’ve had the owner hold them inside their car, then run a three- or four-foot-long IV line out the car window to deliver the fatal dose.

“If clients drive up and see there’s a family that’s having a pet euthanized on the grass, everyone’s been very respectful,” Dr. Allen said.

“It’s worked, but it’s been a little bit tricky.”

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