A new program aims to improve access to animal care in remote and Indigenous communities across Manitoba. Submitted.Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jun 29, 2022 at 13:54

By Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A new program aims to improve access to animal care for remote and Indigenous communities across Manitoba. 

The provincial government is contributing $750,000 to the $1.5-million One Health program. The five-year veterinarian outreach initiative was announced by Indigenous Reconciliation and Northern Relations Minister Alan Lagimodiere Monday. 

“This funding recognizes additional support is needed to address barriers faced by communities in accessing veterinary care and other animal health interventions,” Lagimodiere said. 

He said he hopes the investment, which is being matched by an equal contribution from the Winnipeg Humane Society, will ensure that Manitoba remains a leader across Canada when it comes to animal health. 

Emma Case, client care receptionist at the Carberry Small Animal Veterinary Clinic, said Manitoba actually comes in behind other provinces in regards to its spay and neuter regulations. 

“Manitoba has a very large overpopulation of both dogs and cats that are trying to find homes, due to overbreeding, especially when it comes to feral animals,” she said. 

Since feral dogs and cats aren’t owned by anyone, they aren’t getting spayed or neutered, causing their numbers to increase. A big part of the problem is expense. Case said the clinic sees a lot of people who can’t afford proper veterinary care for their pets, because they didn’t understand how much pet ownership costs going into it, or because they find themselves in changing circumstances. 

In addition to spaying and neutering, Case hopes the initiative will see an uptick in the number of animals that are getting vaccinated, especially for rabies. 

An important part of the One Health Program will be collaborative work with Manitoba First Nations to ensure the programming is both sustainable and culturally sensitive. 

Tracy Munn, the shelter manager and director at the Brandon Humane Society, said she hopes the program will go a long way to dispel the idea that people in the targeted communities aren’t good pet owners. 

“There should not be that stigma,” Munn said. “There are good and bad pet owners there, just like there are good and bad pet owners in the city.” 

She noted that people in rural and Indigenous communities are often faced with issues of affordability and access to proper veterinary care. 

The Brandon Humane Society works with up to 14 Indigenous communities, taking animals into their care and providing a feeding program to them as well. While she is optimistic about the new program, she also acknowledged that part of the problem facing pets in Manitoba communities is the shortage of veterinary professionals. 

“It’s all well and good to say you’re going to put money into helping those animals, but where are you going to find the vets? The government needs to invest in getting more Manitobans into veterinary school. We desperately need more vets.” 

Keri Hudson Reykdal is the president of the Manitoba Veterinary Medical Association, and runs a vet practice in Thompson. She agreed that a shortage of veterinary professionals is one of the biggest issues facing pet owners in remote and Indigenous communities. 

Reykdal ran a mobile trailer servicing remote communities out of Ashern — around 280 kilometres northeast of Brandon — for five years before she opened her practice. She said she thinks the One Health Program, and the funding provided for it, will create a more organized and efficient system to address animal health. 

“Animal welfare is the biggest concern for veterinarians. We know that if we can’t get to these communities to provide vet services, animal welfare will suffer,” she said, saying that overpopulation and disease prevention will be top priorities for the program.

Diseases that dogs carry, such as rabies, tapeworm and roundworm, can be passed on to the human population, so proper education goes beyond simply looking after animals. 

An integral part of One Health will be providing veterinary care and education in a culturally sensitive, respectful way. It’s not enough for vets to simply come to the communities from time to time to provide care. Ideally, Reykdal hopes to see a collaboration between professionals and animal owners that will go a long way to addressing issues facing animal welfare. 

Dale Turcotte, a pet owner who lives on Rolling River First Nation, said issues of access and affordability are a real problem for many in his community. A lot of people aren’t able to have their animals spayed or neutered and vaccinated due to the distance to the nearest veterinary clinic, located in Neepawa. Turcotte just got a new puppy, and finding time to take it to get its shots is proving difficult. 

“We need to go to Neepawa to get him registered and vaccinated, but I work full-time, my wife is going to school, and we can’t really find time to go all the way there. If it was right in Erikson, or right in Rolling River, that would be amazing.” 

Public safety can also become a concern, with packs of wild dogs roaming the community from time to time, getting into fights and attacking and sometimes killing other dogs and smaller animals. Turcotte said this is in large part due to limited access to spay and neuter services, which leads to litters of puppies being born without anyone to look after them. 

The accidents and injuries that come with having such a large homeless dog population, and the distance to the veterinary clinic, put pet owners in a tough spot. Turcotte hopes the One Health Program will change this.

“If a dog gets run over or hurt, the first option is often to shoot him, and that’s not as humane as we would like, but loading that dog up and taking him all the way to Neepawa and hurting him more on the drive is what people are trying to avoid.” 

The One Health Program is being developed in collaboration with Manitoba’s Office of the Chief Veterinarian, the Winnipeg Humane Society, the Manitoba Veterinary Medical Association and other partners. The program will be administered by the Winnipeg Humane Society. 

This item reprinted with permission from The Sun, Brandon, Manitoba