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Change begets change

A segment of the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association’s account of its history between 1991 and 2010 was a question to members about what they thought were the three most important things that changed veterinary practice during those two decades. The responses provided insight into how dramatically veterinary practice and the livestock industry has changed during that period.

The Canadian beef and dairy industry watched with rapt interest the development of a new and strange neurologic disease in the U.K. through the 1980s. The industry was startled when what had been labelled BSE touched down in Red Deer in 1993 in a U.K. import. For 10 years the Canadian beef and dairy industry lived in a vacuum of complacency that government-imposed control programs and an indigent rendering industry had established adequate firewalls. In 2003 the industry was enslaved and paralyzed by the worst economic disaster ever to strike the red meat industry. In May of 2003 BSE became a homegrown issue. It catapulted “mad cow” into the realm of paranoia and illogical responses by trading partners around the globe. Between 2003 and 2010 many segments of the beef industry stood still in the aftermath of losses that exceeded many billions. The industry changed. Veterinary practice changed.

During the span of time between 1990 and 2010, two previously unidentified viruses (porcine reproductive and respiratory virus or PRRS and porcine circovirus ravaged the swine industry in Canada. The potpourri of disease syndromes induced by these two viruses had more than a small part to play in the economic woes of an industry and its subsequent contraction. By 2008, Canadian hog numbers showed the sharpest inventory decline in three decades. The number of hog farms in Canada fell almost 20 per cent in the one-year period ending April 1, 2008. Many swine veterinarians lost one-third to one-half of their client base, which dramatically altered the face of rural practice.

Amidst the concern of foreign animal diseases like foot and mouth disease that devastated the sheep, hog and cattle industry in the U.K. in 2001, and the everpresent risk of other emerging diseases lingering at our borders was the reality that the number of veterinarians ready and willing to locate in rural areas steadily decreased. The risk of disease incursion increases in proportion to the lack of professional eyes and ears with a finger on the pulse of animal health, including the compound effect the lack of access to large-animal diagnostic support has for many areas. Complicating the mix of fewer veterinarians servicing the livestock industry is the parallel need for more sophisticated veterinary service required by fewer, but larger livestock enterprises.

Twenty years ago, few people accurately predicted the impact digital technology would have on veterinary practice and the industry they served. In the early 1990s fewer than 15 per cent of veterinary practices owned a computer. Today it is hard to imagine how any business could function without one. On the veterinary side, animal health management software expanded the capabilities to manage large populations of animals. Computers enhanced the ability to track, predict and manage disease at a herd level.

The computer completely changed the way humans communicate. Computers extended the range of services veterinarians provide clients. Things like the Internet, email, smartphones and social networks wholly altered what information could be transmitted and the speed with which it moved. Veterinarians and livestock producers had immediate access to a library of animal health information once considered incomprehensible. Some estimates suggest the volume of codified information appearing on the Internet doubles every 24 hours — the implication being information overload, or what you know when you wake every morning is only one-half of what you thought you knew the night before.

Advances in digital technology opened the door for a range of new tools for the veterinarian ranging from ultrasound, digital x-rays and laparoscopes to chute-side diagnostics. Portability and ruggedness created by digital technology helped move equipment from clinic to field applications.

A major shift in demographics between 1991 and 2010 was one of the biggest changes noted by veterinarians. Through the 1990s approximately 20 per cent of the profession was female. By 2010, females represented 80 per cent of classes graduating from veterinary schools. The traditional population of rural, male, food animal practitioners markedly declined. The void was partially replaced by female practitioners seeking career alternatives that included job sharing, childcare and maternity leave; all an important part of the mix.

While the beef and pork industries wavered mightily between 2003 and 2010, many rural practitioners decided to expand the companion animal side of rural practice. What they found was a welcome reprieve from the sore shoulders and bad backs of midnight calving in cold hay sheds. Many would not return. Sustaining the transition from traditional rural practice was the support of animal health technologists as their role grew in importance.

The pharmaceutical armament available to veterinarians and the livestock industry included new antimicrobials and more effective vaccines. New drugs and vaccines created important alternatives to managing disease. New anesthetics and pain control products eased the physical challenges and danger associated with large animal veterinary practice.

Over the past 20 years the groundswell of attention to animal welfare and improved codes of practice altered many traditional livestock rearing methods. Sophisticated consumers demanded greater accountability of the food supply chain. Corporate North America for the most part drove major change in how animals were to be handled in the production of food, how they were to be reared on-farm, or transported and managed enroute to processing.

— Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen ([email protected]) or WCABP ([email protected]).

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Dr. Ron Clarke

Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen ([email protected]) or WCABP ([email protected]).

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