THUNDER BAY — Some pet owners in the Thunder Bay area are travelling to animal clinics south of the border or a few hours away because they can't get appointments in the city unless they're already registered.
It's an ongoing situation, not just a recent development, as at least one local clinic hasn't accepted new clients for the past five years.
A spokesperson at another clinic has offered an explanation, saying veterinarians are already badly overworked due to a shortage of veterinarians and vet technicians.
For people such as Richard Bowers, this leads to frustration and heartache.
His cat fell ill recently, but he was unable to find any clinic in the city that's taking on new clients.
"They won't even take a phone consultation. Nothing," Bowers told TBnewswatch. "It's like 'Go away and leave us alone.'"
His pet died before he was able to find a solution to his predicament.
One of the options Bowers had considered was taking the cat to an animal clinic in Grand Marais, Minnesota.
Thunder Bay residents are doing that in increasing numbers, while others have travelled even farther — to Dryden — to get treatment.
At the Cedar Grove Veterinary Clinic in Grand Marais, practice manager Lee Samari said the number one reason her Canadian clients give for driving across the border is the unavailability of service in Thunder Bay.
It currently has up to 50 clients registered from the city.
"And it's growing," Samari said in an interview. "I don't really know what's going on there but we're happy to help."
The Grand Marais clinic has only one vet, but arranging an appointment is relatively easy. Anyone needing to get their pet seen in an emergency situation would likely be accommodated the same day.
In non-emergency cases, appointments are usually available within a week.
Samari said that in terms of booking procedures "I always tell our Thunder Bay clients, 'If you are patient we are able to help you."
The clinic is currently booked for surgeries and dental work until February.
At Crossroads Veterinary Clinic in Thunder Bay, practice manager Tanis Ylimaki said "there's simply not enough qualified people to help sick animals" in the city.
"And it is not only a Thunder Bay problem. It's a Canadian problem," Ylimaki said. "There are many people in other cities who have to drive for hours to find a vet."
But according to Ylimaki, the city's isolated location also makes it particularly difficult to attract new staff here.
She said she's tried to recruit another vet for four years, and still hasn't succeeded.
Ylimaki said the clinic's vets and other staff already have an overwhelming workload
"It's not that we don't want to accept new patients. It's the fact that we can't keep up."
Accordiing to Ylimaki, not only is there a shortage of vets in Thunder Bay, but there's also a shortage of veterinary technicians, essential staff whom she described as "the nurses of the clinic."
Even existing clients face a significant wait for non-emergency appointments, as Crossroads is currently booking into January.
Ylimaki said it's frustrating to hear people saying things such as "vet clinics don't care and they're only out there for the money."
"We're not doing this by choice. I'm trying to make sure my vets aren't going to burn out," she said. "Many of them already are doing so much extra, and going above and beyond as much as they can."
Ylimaki said that in dire situations, the clinic does its best to help people whose pets aren't already registered, but can only do so on a case-by-case basis.
It's also partnered with an Ontario-based virtual service, an arrangement that allows pet owners to obtain a consultation online.