West Coast CARE Network volunteers organized an emergency parvovirus vaccination clinic last March after an outbreak was discovered in Tla-o-qui-aht communities. (CARE Network Photo)

Parvovirus scare underscores lack of veterinary care on Vancouver Island’s West Coast

Puppy from near Ucluelet treated in Nanaimo after contracting highly contagious canine disease

West Coast dog owners are being urged to ensure their pets are fully vaccinated after a puppy was recently diagnosed with the highly contagious and potentially life-threatening canine parvovirus.

James Rodgers of the Coastal Animal Rescue and Education Network said the owner of a puppy in Hitacu reached out to the network after their young dog became ill and, based on the symptoms, CARE helped organize a trip out of town.

“The closest open vet, because it was the weekend, was Nanaimo and so [the puppy] went to the emergency down there, which of course just reinforces the need for us to have more local resources and professional vet services on the Coast,” Rodgers said. “That pup went down and the vets there confirmed that it was a case of parvo. The number one thing that everybody should be aware of is that all puppies and dogs should be vaccinated for parvo.”

Rodgers could not speak to the Hitacu puppy’s current condition, but said that the West Coast sees a parvovirus outbreak roughly once-a-year and a 2018 outbreak killed “more than a handful of dogs.”

The virus is spread through bodily fluids, like vomit and feces. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea and lethargic behaviour.

“It’s a very quick virus and obviously very painful for the animal,” Rodgers said. “It can come out of nowhere and it’s not uncommon for puppy to die within 12 hours.”

He said the incident serves as terrifying proof that the West Coast needs increased veterinarian services.

“CARE’s 2019 New Year’s resolution is that we will be working with a number of vets to establish services regularly on the Coast again,” he said. “In some cases, it’s literally a matter of life and death. In other cases, it’s just tragic when [a pet] is in pain and an end of life situation and the closest resources to handle that humanely are a bumpy, long, three-hour ride away. Pain, suffering and death are what we’re dealing with.”

The West Coast has not had a full-time veterinarian since the College of BC Veterinarians revoked Jane Hunt’s veterinary license in 2004 after new regulations came into play that mandated equipment upgrades Hunt could not afford. She had served as the region’s only vet since 1988.

“West Coast communities have been calling for a regular veterinary service since Jane Hunt stopped practicing,” said Tofino mayor Josie Osborne who noted the Alberni Veterinary Clinic currently visits both Tofino and Ucluelet once-a-month.

“I think many people are grateful that there are regular visits from Port Alberni based vets for immunizations and check-ups, but practically every family with pets that I know is concerned about quicker and more convenient and affordable access for regular check-ups and more urgent care.”

She added travelling out of town for emergency medical care is not always feasible for pet owners and that a local vet could provide valuable preventative health measures.

“It’s important to remember that veterinary services are private businesses and they do have significant capital costs to establish a clinic and many requirements to meet through their governing legislation, the Veterinarians Act,” she said. “I suspect there’s a great deal of work for a prospective West Coast vet to do to determine if it’s a viable prospect in Tofino or Ucluelet, but I know that the CARE Network is working hard to attract and work with prospective veterinarians, and is looking at different models of delivery. We’re extremely fortunate to have a committed and professional organization like the CARE Network.”

Carla Anderson owns the region’s only pet shop, Ocean Pet Supplies, and said establishing a veterinary clinic would not be viable without local government funding from all West Coast communities.

“Unfortunately, we don’t really have the capacity to have a full time vet here based on the cost of running a clinic,” she said. “I’ve had four different veterinarians from all over B.C. look into opening a clinic up here and it’s literally $1 million-plus to open a bare-bones clinic…Of course the community would benefit from a full time veterinarian, but that doesn’t mean that it’s feasible for someone to go into debt for $1 million to come up here and try to open a clinic.”

Rodgers encourages any residents interested in supporting a pursuit for a local vet to visit www.CareNetwork.ca or the network’s Coastal Animal Rescue Facebook page.

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