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Helping dogs in the Sahtu
Initiative brings veterinary services north from Calgary

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Published Friday, February 4, 2011

SAHTU - An initiative to deliver veterinary services in the Sahtu about to begin its fourth year has made a positive difference for the care of dogs in the region.

NNSL photo/graphic

Dr. Susan Kutz: veterinary professor from the University of Calgary carries a dog during one of her visits to the Sahtu. - photo courtesy of Dr. Susan Kutz

For example, Dr. Susan Kutz, an associate professor in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary and a driving force behind the initiative, mentions the vaccination rates for dogs in Colville Lake.

"We were in Colville Lake last year and I can tell you that community has better vaccination coverage than any other community in this country right now, because we vaccinated every dog that was of vaccination age," she said.

The initiative the Sahtu Veterinary Services Program is a joint effort of the University of Calgary and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR).

Along with Colville Lake, the program covers Fort Good Hope, Tulita and Deline, where services are provided for donations. Norman Wells was added last year on a fee-for-service basis.

The annual two-week tour starts Feb. 18 this year.

"We bring up senior vet students with us each year so they can learn about delivery of vet services in remote regions," Kutz said.

She became aware of the need for veterinary services in the region while working on wildlife issues since the mid-1990s in conjunction with Alasdair Veitch, ENR's supervisor of wildlife management in the Sahtu.

In 2003, they started a community outreach and education program to talk to students about wildlife biology, veterinary medicine and other issues.

"Once people got to know me and they knew that there was a veterinarian up in the community, I would get a lot of requests and questions about dogs and how to take care of them," Kutz recalled.

The program was launched in 2008, when a needs assessment was completed in the region.

"We thought, well, let's figure out if really people want to see vets here or not," Kutz said.

In all, 42 owners were questioned about their dogs' breed, vaccinations and de-worming, food, housing, ages and more. The owners were also asked whether they would have dogs spayed or neutered if the service was available. The survey was also completed by 67 schoolchildren.

"What became very apparent is that a lot of people were perhaps not aware of what vet services were, or what a veterinarian could do for the health of their animals," Kutz said, adding most people wanted veterinary services once they understand what that would be.

The 2008 survey also found 20 per cent of dogs were neutered, 37 per cent had rabies vaccinations, and 29 per cent had been de-wormed. Examinations of dogs found 54 per cent were thin, while four per cent were emaciated.

The findings of the needs study and an evaluation of animal health services in remote communities were recently published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal.

Kutz, who was the lead author of the article, said numbers in the study might look bad, but the communities didn't have veterinary services at that time.

"People often look at the communities from the outside and point fingers at how they might see animals treated, but when you get down there and talk to them about their dogs, you find that people really do care about the dogs and they care about the welfare of their dogs," she said. "A lot of stuff is often misinterpreted or just not understood from an outsider's point of view."

Kutz said dogs found emaciated in the first year were in good condition the following year after the vets talked to owners about the energy requirements of dogs in a cold climate.

Every year the program sees more dogs 94 in the first year, 131 in the second and 172 last year. During last year's first time in Norman Wells, the vets saw 64 dogs and 15 cats.

Patricia McNeely, a dog owner in Fort Good Hope, said the program has been good for the community.

"I think one of the major impacts is the spaying and neutering that they do," McNeely said. "I know a lot of people have brought their pets in for that."

Without the service owners would have to send dogs to Yellowknife, which is very expensive, she said.

McNeely owns a Rottweiler and basset hound, which have been spayed or neutered by the visiting vets.

Veitch said most people realize the benefits of the program, not just dog owners.

In fact, he said First Nations, community councils and businesses help with donations, such as supplying accommodations to the visiting veterinarians.

"People with dogs, they tell us that they really appreciate the fact they don't have to take their dogs to Norman Wells or order vaccine from Yellowknife and administer it to the dogs themselves," he said. "They can have professional veterinarians come and examine their dogs, clip toenails, do a checkup and make sure they got all the proper shots."

Plus, he said, more people are interested in having dogs spayed or neutered.

Veitch said part of the program focuses on educating young people, saying some even help out with vaccinations and surgeries.

"We don't see that we're going to change the world in one year," he said. "But over a number of years, we can make things a little better and provide a much-needed service."

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