When new farm animal diseases rear their heads, one of the first questions asked is how they were discovered.  Overwhelmingly, the sleuth turns out to be a rural veterinarian, summoned by the farm’s concerned owner or operator.

Although our society is becoming much more urbanized, rural veterinarians play a critical role. In Ontario, the Ontario Veterinary College and its supporters train and educate large animal veterinarians, and encourage students to consider rural practice. Young people need this encouragement and the farm sector must get behind them.

In Ontario, rural veterinary practices have been on high alert over the past two weeks, following the discovery of the first cases of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PED) in Middlesex County, then later in Chatham-Kent and Norfolk.

Fortunately, PED doesn’t affect humans. It is not what’s called a zoonotic disease, the kind that can be passed from animals to humans.

Still, diseases such as this send alarm bells ringing.

In this province, veterinarians are legally bound to report findings that represent a serious risk to animal health to the provincial authorities, according to the 2009 Ontario Animal Health Act.

PED certainly qualifies. The virus, which is unusually contagious and infectious, started in the US and has killed more than one million pigs there. It’s particularly lethal to piglets 2-5 days old. In just a matter of days, it can wipe out all of a barn’s young animals. Amy Cronin, chair of Ontario Pork, says the industry could face $45 million in losses this year if PED gets out of hand.

Once a veterinarian spots trouble and notifies the province, officials are dispatched to take samples of the affected animals, for analysis at the provincial animal health lab in Guelph.

The lab is administered by the University of Guelph, through a unique agreement with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Ministry of Rural Affairs. This coordinated effort offers up an unparalleled breadth of expertise in research, analysis and education, getting to the heart of the matter swiftly and professionally.

Rural veterinarians work with others in the system to help accurately define the problem. About one-third of Ontario’s veterinarians work in mixed or large animal practices.  More than 400 are employed by industry and government.

Veterinarians need top-notch training to help make swift and effective diagnoses. In livestock barns or any type of confined housing where animals are in close quarters, epidemic-type situations can take hold rapidly. Veterinarians, working in conjunction with farmers, can spot problems.

One way the Ontario Veterinary College helps budding veterinarians recognize trouble on the farm is through field placements. For example, the college’s Bovine Education Trust offers veterinary students real-life skills and experience through clinical practice placements and extra-curricular activities, such as attending conferences and specialized training programs.

The trust received a shot in the arm in December with a $450,000 gift from the estate of Ontario dairy farmer Bruce Reynolds, who wanted to encourage young veterinarians to take up rural practice.

More than an aside to this PED situation is the fact that 2014 is the International Year of Family Farming. The year is hardly 30 days old, and yet already family farms in Ontario are being hit between the eyes. Make no mistake about it – this is a local farm, local food matter. They could well be in for a rough ride.

Rural veterinarians are among the many individuals in the support chain that keep family farms going, through good times and bad. In the pork production business, which is overwhelmingly a family-run sector, these are very challenging days.

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