Here’s where you’ll find out all about the veterinary profession and community in Canada: why veterinary medicine is so specialized, why veterinary care is important to your pet’s health, what goes into the cost of diagnosis and healing dogs and cats. When you learn more about veterinary clinics, and the professionals caring for companion animals, you’ll understand why we think they’re so important to the health and well-being of your pets. Watch our Veterinary Care video series for more information.
Veterinary medicine is considered one of the most academically rigorous and competitive programs in North America; only a fraction of those who apply to attend veterinary college are accepted. There are five veterinary colleges in Canada and they all follow the same training curriculum. Candidates that are accepted typically have two to seven years of university education prior to acceptance, followed by a further four years of veterinary medical school.
Upon successful completion of veterinary medical school, veterinarians are licensed by (and in) whatever province they choose as their residence. To remain licensed, they must adhere to the high standards set by their professional peers (this is referred to as a ‘self-regulated’ profession). They must attend continuing education each year afterwards to ensure they remain professionally current, and that this high standard of skills development and training is maintained.
Although most graduate veterinarians choose general practice as their career, a number of veterinarians stay within an academic environment to achieve a higher level of training to become ‘specialists’. The specialties available are very similar to those in human medicine, e.g., cardiology, internal medicine, orthopaedic surgery, etc. Once they're done, these veterinarians have the choice of remaining within an academic environment as teachers, or venturing out into private practice - either on their own or affiliated with a larger group practice.
One aspect of veterinary medicine that’s often overlooked by pet owners is that it’s not socialized medicine. As such, pet owners find it hard to understand why treatment can be so expensive. In order to provide veterinary care to their patients, veterinarians cannot simply hang up a sign, grab a stethoscope and set up practice. Unlike human general practitioners, veterinarians are expected and trained to do a great deal more. They must be radiologists, surgeons, dentists, pharmacists, anaesthetists, etc., all rolled into one. This not only means that they go through longer and more intensive training, but it also means that they MUST provide full hospital facilities in order to be able to provide proper veterinary care. Veterinarian clinics must have the same equipment that most human hospitals have, which requires a staff of many other very qualified people.
Few pet owners realize that 1/3 of our tax dollars is used to operate all the human hospitals in Canada. Once you take this into account, it’s easy to understand how the cost of care is driven by the huge overhead that most veterinarians deal with in order to provide excellent care for their patients. The various veterinary licensing bodies across Canada are also very strict regarding the high quality of care provided and the standards of the veterinary hospitals themselves. Providing these sophisticated facilities is a major contributor to the costs of veterinary medicine.
The greatest difference between human medicine and veterinary medicine is that in Canada, our human medicine is heavily funded by tax revenue (i.e., it is socialized). Veterinary medicine is all privatized. In other words, the complex hospital facilities needed for pet patient care are fully funded by individual veterinarians.
People and pets are susceptible to very similar diseases. So, across most aspects of medicine – from diseases to their corresponding treatments – the human and veterinary medical fields are very similar. This should come as no surprise, for in this respect, people are very much part of the animal kingdom.
Another difference (at least at present in Canada) is that when a pet is suffering from a disease that has placed it in a painful, highly debilitated state, with no quality of life and no prospects for improvement, a veterinarian, in close consultation with the pet’s family, has the privilege of humanely ending that suffering.
In a veterinary hospital, there are many different roles that are filled by different team members:
Animal Health Technicians (AHTs, RAHTs, Vet Techs, etc.)
One of the most important roles is that of the veterinary technician, who is the equivalent of a nurse practitioner in human medicine. These highly qualified individuals have completed a two- to three- year degree in order to become licensed, and in many cases, already have a university degree before starting their training. As it is for veterinarians, one of the requirements of maintaining a veterinary technician license is to acquire annual continuing education credits.
Veterinary Clinic Reception
The ‘face’ of most veterinary practices is the receptionist. Although there are college courses available for training in the expertise of being a good receptionist, very often, veterinary clinic receptionisits are taught ‘on the job’, often having been a receptionist in another field or profession. Those who work in veterinary practices typically have a love of animals, excellent memories and proactive natures, combined with a great deal of compassion.
The challenges of being a busy practitioner often prevent veterinarians from physically running their own practices, so this pivotal role is often handed to an office manager. Many veterinary practices have office managers who are relied upon to make the clinic or hospital function like a well-oiled machine. Again, there are college courses for developing the skill set to be a good office manager. Sometimes, veterinary technicians who demonstrate their acumen for this position eventually grow into it within a practice. Annual continuing education is very important for this role as well, so it is offered through veterinary associations across Canada.
Most of the other roles within a hospital are filled by people who have been trained on the job and who are happy enough working with animals to make it their life career.
In Canada, there are two designations that might also be referred to as ‘veterinary nurse’. In Ontario, they are referred to as RVTs, or Registered Veterinary Technicians, and they are governed by their own provincial act. Across the rest of the country, they are known as AHTs, or Animal Health Technicians, and they are governed by the same act that regulates veterinarians. Their training and responsibilities within the veterinary hospital are the same.
There are many factors to consider when you’re looking for a veterinarian. Often, family and friends will act as a good resource for a referral. Perhaps the most important consideration is that you need to be able to establish a relationship of trust between you and your pet’s veterinarian. This is something you will know inherently when you meet the right veterinarian for you.
It’s often noted that owners should be more concerned about how much a veterinarian cares, rather than how much they know. After all, if your veterinarian doesn’t have the answer, they can always refer your pet to a specialist. Remember, you’re not just entrusting them with the well-being of an important family member —you should also consider that at some point in your pet’s life, some critical decisions will need to be made. It’s times like this that you’ll need to have complete faith and trust in your veterinarian’s guidance, as well as in the decisions you’ll ultimately make together.
There will be other factors in your choice, of course. The quality of medicine and surgery will certainly be a consideration. How conveniently located the hospital is; if there’s parking nearby; if the staff is helpful, compassionate and responsive to your needs and questions; if the hours are convenient —these are just a few of the questions that will likely drive your choice of veterinarian and practice.
Most veterinarians are very positive about pet insurance. They realize it offers pet owners the ability to do what’s best for their pet under all circumstances. It removes the very sad necessity of having to euthanize a pet due to lack of funds. Veterinary medicine has become highly advanced, offering treatment modalities similar to what’s available for owners themselves. However, veterinary medicine is not socialized medicine (like MediCare in Canada), so there are costs (sometimes significant) attached to these veterinary medical treatments.
Veterinarians are busy professionals and there is much to discuss with owners when they bring their pets in for examinations. Due to the time available, a veterinarian may not have the time to discuss the benefits that pet insurance offers, even though they see and value its worth. Clinic staff are often a very helpful and supportive resource if you have further questions.