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University of Guelphs Ontario Veterinary College students are sounding the alarm over the college’s decision to close its service to birds and exotic pets.
The specialized department takes care of birds and animals that fall into the broad category of exotic pets, including reptiles, amphibians and small mammals such as ferrets, rabbits and guinea pigs.
It also serves as an important teaching center to train future veterinarians in the treatment of these animals.
In an email sent to students and staff on Thursday, Jeffrey Witchtel, dean of Ontario Veterinary College, said the service would be closed on August 6, 2022 due to financial and personnel difficulties.
Calli Freedman, a fourth year veterinary student, said this will put some pet owners in a difficult position.
“There’s nothing quite like it in Ontario, at least,” she said of the service.
While many veterinary clinics treat rabbits and pocket animals, it is harder to find someone who is comfortable caring for pet birds and reptiles, Freedman said.
“And if your exotic animal needs a CT or an MRI, things like that, a private practice won’t have that even if they see (exotic pets),” she said. “This is pretty much the only facility where this type of diagnosis can be done.”
An online petition launched by Freedman Thursday, urging the college to reconsider its decision to close the service, had garnered nearly 6,000 signatures by 4:00 p.m. Friday.
“Exotic species deserve the same quality of medicine, the same quality of care as their cat and canine counterparts,” Freedman said. “If we shut down the service, it just won’t be possible.”
There are also concerns about what the closure will mean for the training of future veterinarians.
“Without this program, there will be no programs in Ontario, in fact, in all of Canada, that have a residency program with an emphasis on exotic pets,” said Omar Ahmad Zaheer, a recently graduated bird and exotic resident from the University of Guelph, who is hoping next year pass his exam to become a fully certified exotic pet specialist.
“If you want to become a specialist in exotic pets, you cannot stay in Canada when this program ends,” he said.
This also has an impact on veterinary students who just want to become general practitioners, said Zaheer.
Zaheer already knows of people whose exotic pets were sick and couldn’t find a vet to take care of them.
“This problem only gets worse if veterinary students are not trained to be comfortable and competent in these ways,” he said.
An Ontario Veterinary College communications officer said Dean Jeffrey Wichtel was unavailable for an interview Friday.
In an email response to questions, Wichtel said that many veterinary clinics are facing financial and staffing shortages and “unfortunately the Ontario Veterinary College is not immune to these challenges”.
“The University of Guelph and OVC, like other universities, have faced budget cuts for several years,” he continued. “We have been asked for some time to achieve more with less. We therefore had to cut faculty positions. Unfortunately, this makes maintaining the A&E service untenable.”
As for customers to receive care, Wichtel said there is “significant and growing” capacity for exotic and zoo animal medicine in the GTA, including some locations with advanced diagnostic imaging. The college’s hope of announcing the closure now is to give customers as much time as possible to find alternative care, Wichtel said.
Regarding training, Wichtel said, “No veterinary school has all kinds of specialties in their hospital.”
Ontario Veterinary College “always works hard” to provide internships in private practices to students interested in specialties that are not treated in their hospital, Wichtel said.
“We will do the same for this specialty,” he said.
The service for birds and exotic species will be closed on August 6th and no new customers will be accepted from July 8th, Wichtel said.