The day-to-day life of a rural, equine veterinarian is far from routine—and it is certainly very busy.
This is the case, anyway, for the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s (CVMA’s) recently installed president, Chris Bell, BSc., DVM, MVetSc., DACVS (Large Animal). Indeed, when Veterinary Practice News Canada caught up with the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) alumnus and adjunct professor, he was driving through Neepawa, Man., 187 km northwest of Winnipeg.
“We do some remote clinic work,” he explains. “So, we’re headed up to Clear Lake right now.”
A board-certified equine surgeon, Dr. Bell has overseen Elder’s Equine Veterinary Service in Cartier, Man., for more than a decade. The legacy practice, which was first opened by Dr. Norm Elder in 1967, has long been a fixture of the Southeastern Manitoba region. Under the leadership of Bell, it has expanded to include full surgical services, as well as advanced sports medicine and a full ambulatory practice.
“My work schedule is usually about 60 per cent in the hospital and about 40 per cent going out to the farms we service,” Bell says. “The other services we do—remote clinics, the outreach practice, and whatnot—is about three times a year. The majority of my work is in-hospital, looking at referral cases, as well as some primary care casework.”
Veterinary Practice News Canada spoke to Bell to learn more about his professional history and find out what he hopes to achieve during his term as CVMA president.
1) What inspired you to specialize in equine surgery?
I grew up with horses. My parents had a boarding barn, and I was always intrigued and inspired by the veterinarians who would come to the farm. They could fix a horse up and get it ready to go back out into the competition pen. From a young age, I really looked up to the veterinarians I would meet on the farm.
In high school, I was interested in getting into veterinary medicine, so I was set up with a program in my grade 11 and 12 years where I could go work at a veterinary hospital and earn some class credits. I completed this through Moore Equine in Calgary, and it was really the first time I realized what an equine surgeon did. I had the opportunity to work with Drs. Greg Andrews and Mike Scott. Mike was a board-certified surgeon. I got to shadow him, and thought, “Wow, this pretty cool—this is what I’d like to do!” So, that was my goal from there—to become an equine surgeon.
2) What are some of the more challenging cases you have seen at Elder’s Equine?
One of the more challenging cases I can think of in recent memory was a barn fire where several horses—probably a dozen or more—were entrapped and injured by smoke inhalation. We attended emergently with several colleagues and got the fire department and emergency medical services (EMS) involved with oxygen.
While dealing with that kind of mass casualty incident, as well as the triage and everything that goes into it, there were also some very rewarding parts to it. We were able to save some of the horses, which was amazing. We put them on cannulated oxygen, we gave them traches (if needed), we managed their airway edema—we did all sorts of thing to intervene. Unfortunately, several horses passed away, which was, of course, very hard. It’s how veterinary medicine is. You do your best to try and save as many animals as you can, and you treat and alleviate illness whenever possible. At the same time, when the illness is causing pain and discomfort to the animal and we’re not able to treat it anymore, we have the obligation to be able to end the suffering. It can be a roller-coaster for sure, with the highs and the lows.
3) You also oversee the canine sports medicine service at Grant Park Animal Hospital. Tell us about that.
I have a couple small animal medicine colleagues in Winnipeg. They were having trouble finding someone who could do musculoskeletal ultrasounds—for shoulders, joints, and those sorts of things—for dogs. It’s not very commonly done in small animal medicine. For me, though, this is the kind of thing I do all the time!
One of the veterinarians at Anderson Animal Hospital, Winnipeg, reached out and asked if I would be interested in coming to ultrasound a dog’s bicep tendon. I said, “Sure!” I did some reading and learned about it, and this led into starting a bit of a mobile sports medicine service for dogs. I didn’t really think too much of it. Then, in 2020, I was approached by two of my former classmates. They wanted to start a small animal practice, and they were looking for someone to help them out with the business aspect of it, as well as add in some of the sports medicine service.
Since then, I’ve been working with them at Grant Park Animal Hospital, Winnipeg, to offer canine (and feline, if they want it!) sports medicine service. Through this, I do a lot of musculoskeletal ultrasounds, and treating patients with shockwave or biologics, like PRP [platelet-rich plasma], IRAP [Interleukin 1 receptor antagonist protein], and stem cell. I’ve expanded to doing a bit of endoscopy work for dogs, too. It’s been a neat side interest to take on, and I’m glad to be able to explore it through a partnership with my classmates.
4) You are a vocal advocate of mentorship in veterinary medicine. Can you speak to the enrichment of mentorship?
Mentorship is key in all aspects of life, no matter what one hopes to achieve. For me, the mentors I had in high school—the veterinarians I looked up to—were able to help guide me on how to get into vet school. Then, going through WCVM, the professors I met continued to guide me and help me make decisions about my future path.
Of course, everything comes full circle. Now that I own my own practice, I’m able to give back and offer my help to students who are looking to get into vet or tech school, as well as those who are already enrolled and trying to navigate what they want to do with their career. Also, through the clinical internship program at Elder’s, we have a young veterinarian come to work with us during their first year out of veterinary school. I’m able to help them to develop their clinical judgment, their skills, their competencies—it’s very rewarding. Mentorship is an absolutely important part of life and society, and we should all embrace it.
5) What are the initiatives CVMA supports to address issues impacting Canada’s veterinarians?
The mental health and well-being of Canada’s veterinary professionals is of the utmost importance. Veterinarians across North America have struggled amidst the pandemic, the increased demand, the ‘pandemic puppies,’ and all the rest of it. CVMA has resources in place to support the veterinary community—there is access to help for those who need it. This also relates to mentorship, our veterinarians serving as a human connection for colleagues in need of help in veterinary medicine.
Also among CVMA’s focuses is Canada’s veterinary shortage. This is one of the areas I was working on even before assuming my current role. The kick-off to my presidency was our Workforce Summit, which took place at the CVMA Convention in Halifax this past July. The summit allowed me to bring in three speakers who looked at different aspects and avenues around how to address the workforce shortage—whether this was better mobilizing our veterinary technologists within clinics to allow these professionals to practice at their full skillset, looking at alternative ‘extender’-type roles, like the physician’s associate/assistant model within veterinary medicine, or addressing issues related to team member retention and recruitment.
CVMA also hosted a Workforce Congress, which brought together stakeholders from all provinces, including members of federal and provincial government, industry partners, and federal and provincial veterinarians. This helped start a dialogue, where we asked, “What are we going to do? How are we going to address this shortage?” From this, we have generated a document with our short- and long-term goals—some of which are already in motion. For one, almost all of the veterinary schools across Canada have increased their seats in the past 18 months. An exciting part of these additional students coming in is many of them have a rural background and will, ideally, go on to serve in Canada’s agricultural sector.
The association is also looking at foreign-trained graduates and how we can provide better access for veterinary professionals coming into the country. Some of the areas around our National Examining Board (NEB) exam, which is how one becomes eligible for licencing in Canada, will be looked at, along with immigration at a federal level. At this moment, this system isn’t allowing for easy admission into the country, even for highly trained individuals who have written and passed the NEB exam. We’re hoping to get the federal government to address Canada’s veterinary shortage and, perhaps, allow a three-year moratorium on the Labour Market Impact Assessments (LMIAs) veterinary employers are required to file for foreign workers.
Our next biggest challenge is having federal and provincial governments recognize the economic importance of veterinarians. When many think of veterinarians, they often think of dogs and cats. These animals are very important, but, from a country-wide economic view, our large animal veterinarians are vital in maintaining Canadian food supply and export markets. If we don’t provide some focus to retaining and training large animal veterinarians, we’re going to run into some trouble in those areas. We need to increase capacity at veterinary schools, and this will require federal and provincial co-operation to get some better infrastructure.