Students at the University of Guelphs Ontario Veterinary College are sounding the alarm over the college's decision to close its service for avian and exotic pets.
The specialized department provides care for birds and animals that fall into the broad category of exotic pets including reptiles, amphibians and small mammals like ferrets, rabbits and guinea pigs.
It also serves as an important teaching centre to train future vets on the treatment these animals.
In an email sent to students and staff Thursday, Ontario Veterinary College Dean Jeffrey Witchtel said the service will close on Aug. 6, 2022, due to financial constraints and staffing difficulties.
Fourth-year veterinary student Calli Freedman said that will put some pet owners in a difficult position.
"At least within Ontario, there's nothing else like it," she said of the service.
While many vet clinics will treat rabbits and pocket pets, finding someone comfortable providing care for avian and reptile pets is more difficult said Freedman.
"And on top of that, if your exotic animal needs a CT or an MRI, things like that, a private practice is not going to have that, even if they do see (exotic pets)," she said. "This is pretty much the only facility where those types of diagnostics can be done."
An online petition started Thursday by Freedman urging the college to reconsider the decision to close the service had amassed nearly 6,000 signatures as of 4 p.m. Friday.
"Exotic species deserve the same quality of medicine, the same quality of care as their cat and dog counterparts," said Freedman. "If we close the service, that's just not going to be possible."
There's also concerns about what the closure will mean for the education of future veterinarians.
"Without this program, there won't be any programs in Ontario, actually in all of Canada that have a residency program focused on exotic pets," said Omar Ahmad Zaheer, a recently graduated avian and exotic resident from the University of Guelph who's hoping to sit his exam to become a fully certified exotic pet specialist next year.
"If you want to become an exotic pet specialist, you cannot stay in Canada if this program closes down," he said.
That has implications even for veterinary students who just want to be general practitioners, Zaheer said.
Already Zaheer knows of people who's exotic pets have been sick and could not find a vet to take care of them.
"That problem is only going to get worse if veterinary students are not being trained to be comfortable and competent in those species," he said.
A communications person for the the Ontario Veterinary College said Dean Jeffrey Wichtel was not available for an interview Friday.
In an emailed response to questions, Wichtel said many veterinary hospitals face financial and staffing constraints and "unfortunately, the Ontario Veterinary College is not immune to these challenges."
"The University of Guelph and OVC – like other universities - have been faced with budgetary curtailment for several years," he continued. "We have been asked to do more with less for quite a while now. We have had to trim faculty positions as a result. Unfortunately, this makes maintaining the A&E service untenable."
As to where clients can go for care, Wichtel said there is "significant and growing" capacity for exotic and zoo animal medicine in the GTA, including some locations with advanced diagnostic imaging. The college's hope in sharing news of the closure now is to give clients as much time as possible to find alternative care, said Wichtel.
Meanwhile in terms of training Wichtel said, "no veterinary school has every possible specialty in their hospital."
The Ontario Veterinary College "always "work(s) hard" to facilitate placements in private practices for students interested in specialties not covered in its hospital, said Wichtel.
"We will do so for this specialty as well," he said.
The avian and exotics service will close on Aug. 6 and stop accepting new clients as of July 8, said Wichtel.