Oct. 15, 2020

Expansion of critical veterinary diagnostics at UCalgary puts more animal diseases under the microscope

Province announces two grants to increase services and improve livestock care in Alberta

One of the most critical elements for maintaining animal health is good diagnostics — the tests and procedures that help veterinarians identify diseases. While this is important for pets and pet owners, it’s crucial for both the livelihoods of Alberta’s farmers and ranchers and the health of their livestock

As the human and veterinary medical worlds increasingly try to avoid antibiotics as the first line of treatment in order to combat antibacterial resistance, diagnostics become all the more important.

  • Photo above: A new series of grants from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry is enabling UCVM’s Diagnostic Services Unit to expand and launch a pilot project to begin providing essential diagnostic services to the Alberta livestock industry. Faculty of Veterinary Medicine photo

“We're changing our practices when it comes to livestock health, increasing the awareness of what diseases are in our populations, and strategically using antibiotics,” says Dr. Ashley Whitehead, DVM, associate dean, clinical programs at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM), who has been championing the expansion of the faculty’s Diagnostic Services Unit (DSU).

Ashley Whitehead

Ashley Whitehead has been championing the expansion of the faculty’s Diagnostic Services Unit.

Faculty of Veterinary Medicine

“To do that, we are going to need more diagnostics in order to safeguard our animals, as well as our food production systems. This is important for the health of livestock, but also for producer livelihoods and food security.”

In Alberta, however, many diagnostic tests need to be sent to labs in other provinces, which costs more and means longer wait times for getting results. But that’s beginning to change.

Alberta government announces $3.44 million in funding for DSU expansion

A new series of grants from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry is enabling UCVM’s DSU to expand and launch a pilot project to begin providing more of these essential diagnostic services to Alberta’s livestock industry.

On Oct. 14, Devin Dreeshen, minister of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, along with UCalgary President Ed McCauley and UCVM Dean Baljit Singh, announced the finalization of two grant agreements, worth $3.44 million.

From left: Ed McCauley, Devin Dreeshen and Baljit Singh announce the finalization of two grant agreements, worth $3.44 million.

From left: Ed McCauley, Devin Dreeshen and Baljit Singh announce the finalization of two grant agreements, worth $3.44 million.

Faculty of Veterinary Medicine

The grants comprise $1.4 million from the province’s Strategic Research and Development Program, $2.04 million from the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a five-year $3 billion investment by federal, provincial, and territorial governments. It allows the DSU to provide diagnostic pathology, bacteriology, and other testing services to the province’s livestock veterinarians.

“The investment is a major step forward as UCVM looks to position the DSU as a centre of veterinary diagnostic excellence and innovation in Alberta,” says Singh.

“Quick, readily available animal health diagnostics are essential to helping Alberta’s vets support our livestock producers,” said Dreeshen during the announcement. “This agreement will ensure the University of Calgary will be able to substantially increase that capacity.”

“With this new support from the provincial and federal governments, UCVM will set new standards of excellence in efficient diagnostics, animal welfare and food production,” said President Ed McCauley. “By supporting livestock health and combating antibiotic resistance, we are also benefiting human health and environmental health as interconnected elements.”

More diagnostic capacity for industry and greater learning and research opportunities for students

“This expansion will enhance livestock diagnostic capacity in Alberta through subsidization of pathology and bacteriology services,” says Dr. Jennifer Davies, director of UCVM’s DSU. “These enhanced services will fill a void in the current veterinary landscape by providing high-quality, affordable, in-province, livestock diagnostics to rapidly identify diseases and shed light on antimicrobial resistance patterns.”

Jennifer Davies

Jennifer Davies is excited about the expansion funding, which will help in providing high-quality, affordable, in-province livestock diagnostics.

Faculty of Veterinary Medicine

The impacts, she says, are far-reaching for the agricultural and veterinary communities, but she’s also quick to point out the benefits this expansion has for UCVM students.

“One of the unique features of having a veterinary diagnostic laboratory embedded in the university is the ability to translate diagnostic cases into educational materials that enrich student learning,” says Davies. “The increased caseload generated by this expansion will create meaningful experiential learning opportunities for our students and will provide the next generation of veterinarians in Alberta with a strong foundational knowledge in veterinary pathology and disease diagnosis.”

Whitehead agrees, adding this also benefits the community through better trained veterinarians, and more knowledge shared with the community from more relevant and timely research.

Faster and better results for industry mean greater food safety for us

Alberta veterinarians who work with livestock also see the new pilot as a potential game-changer.

“The expansion will make a pretty big impact on industry,” says Dr. Carling Matejka, DVM, a veterinarian at Central Veterinary Clinic and an UCVM alumna, who works closely with Alberta’s cattle producers. “It will give us the ability to send tests more quickly, which will lead to earlier detection, and provide us with the information we need to provide better, more well-rounded treatment plans for diseases and toxicities.”

Matejka also says that this doesn’t only benefit for producers, it affects society more broadly, helping to improve Canada’s already high food safety standards. “It’s an opportunity to make ourselves better,” she says.

This is just the beginning

Dr. Teryn Girard, DVM, of Prairie Swine Health Services and another UCVM alumna, agrees. “The hardest thing for me is waiting for lab tests to come back from other provinces. These quicker, cheaper results will allow us to diagnose faster, which, from a foreign animal disease perspective, is so important.”

UCVM is keen to make sure industry continues to stay involved throughout the DSU expansion pilot to ensure they see as much benefit from the program as the university does. Whitehead says a steering committee comprising representatives from a wide range of livestock and agricultural industry stakeholders is being assembled to ensure the pilot’s success.

“This is just the beginning,” says Whitehead. “With the help of industry, we look forward to building a full-scale program that will serve the Alberta industry for years to come.”