03/15/2012 01:46 EDT | Updated 05/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada Drug Shortage: Pets May Feel The Crunch, Say Vets

EDMONTON - Sick pets may soon feel the pain of a national shortage of some drug types that has already affected some of their owners.

Veterinarians across the country say that production cuts from a factory in Quebec are beginning to affect everyday treatment of the animals that come in for care.

"Within the next two weeks, a lot of these drugs won't be available any more," said Jean Gauvin of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.

"Absolutely," said Martin Schiebel, a veterinarian with a small-animal practice in Edmonton.

"The biggest impact that we've had so far is the staff trying to find a work-around for some of the medication. In lots of cases there are alternatives that we can use and it's just a question of getting those into our normal way of doing things."

Many of the drugs prescribed for animals, especially those used for pain control, are exactly the same as those used in humans, said Duane Landals, registrar of the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association.

"They're human-quality drugs, but they're used in veterinary practices," he said. "They're manufactured by the same plant."

Most of the drugs in short veterinary supply are painkillers. Others include drugs to control seizures or nausea, or to ease the impact of an anaesthetic on a frightened dog or cat.

Concerns about the supply of drugs began earlier this month, when the Sandoz Canada plant in Quebec cut production of more than 100 medications and then suffered a fire at the same facility. The plant makes 90 per cent of injectable medications used in Canada, among them anaesthetics, painkillers, cancer drugs and antibiotics.

Hospitals across the country have been checking their supplies. The federal government has promised to speed up the application process for replacement drugs.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association has told its members that eight medications are going to be in short supply.

"Veterinarians will need to look for ways to mitigate the impact of shortages of key veterinary products," said the association's email. "This includes using alternative anaesthetic protocols or alternate drug selections based on availability."

Alternatives for most — although not all — of the drugs are available. But they require bringing staff up to speed on protocols that haven't been used in a long time, Schiebel said.

Vets may also be able to import some of the drugs from U.S. or other alternative suppliers. Some drugs can be compounded to order from raw ingredients.

It's an issue that comes up daily, said Schiebel. Most of the impact will fall on the owners, who may have to pay a little more for drugs, he said.

"I don't think we're going to have a life-threatening impact on any of our patients."

The impact is likely to be felt more in small-animal practices that deal with pets than in those clinics that deal with large farm animals, said Sandra Stephens, registrar of the Saskatchewan Veterinary Medical Association.

"When you're doing a food animal practice we don't tend to use those types of drugs because we're not doing those types of procedures," she said.

Vets and pets may have to get used to it, said Gauvin.

"I don't think that the veterinary side of the supply will be taken care of before mid-2013.

"We understand that the human side has to be served first. But we really believe that animal welfare is in jeopardy when a lot of these important drugs are not available."