Farmers are growing increasingly frustrated as they find it “almost impossible” to get hold of a veterinarian when their animals need medical care, a situation that occasionally forces some of them to resort to home-made methods of medical care.
The problem is affecting mostly cows but several farmers who spoke to Times of Malta said pigs, sheep, goats and chickens also frequently fall victims to the shortage because veterinarians seem to prefer working with small, domestic animals in clinics.
They say it has become a nightmare, especially when the cows are giving birth late in the evening or during the night. Occasionally, cattle need to give birth by a caesarean procedure and, on other occasions, they need stitches after they give birth.
“It is a horrible feeling having to watch your animals suffer in desperate need of medical care while you’re helpless, unable to find a vet. In extreme cases, some farmers’ only option is to try and tend to the animal’s medical needs themselves, in the ways they know,” one farmer said.
It is illegal for any medically unqualified individual to perform medical procedures on animals but desperate times call for desperate measures.
In some extreme situations, it is either that or the animal dies.
Malcolm Borg, who heads MCAST’s agricultural centre, said some veterinarians do start out or spend some time working with farm animals but they generally move on to open their own private clinics because income from the farms is limited and unstable.
“The problem has existed for so long that some farmers have just accepted that it’s how things are and they believe there is little hope for a solution,” he said.
One recommendation that could help alleviate the problem is to introduce paramedics for animals
Large farm animals share many sicknesses with humans. They occasionally need medicine to treat stomach and intestine problems and, on rarer occasions, surgery.
The farmers, however, do not blame the veterinarians for not attending to their animals. They admit that tending to large animals’ medical needs is completely different to caring for small, domestic animals and a vet with a clinic for cats and dogs might not necessarily be equipped to leave the clinic and head for the farm because the tools, medicines and dosages are significantly different.
Furthermore, veterinarians might be reluctant to do the job because it is far more exhausting and far less profitable and a considerable number of them have ethical issues with it as well.
“You must understand that for most of them, the desire to become vets stemmed from their childhood love for animals,” Alison Bezzina, the animal welfare commissioner, explained.
“They will probably be uncomfortable working at a slaughterhouse or tending to animals which they know are being reared for milk and meat.”
Bezzina said farmers are right to be worried and something needs to be done to help them, adding that, despite popular belief, she as commissioner has no executive power to enact or enforce measures to solve the issue. Rather, her job is to observe, study and recommend solutions to the authorities.
“One recommendation that could help alleviate the problem is to introduce paramedics for animals, so to speak,” she said.
“In human medicine, paramedics are highly qualified and technically trained individuals who can perform specific procedures, even though they are not doctors. We could invest in training for ‘paramedics’ for animals.
“For instance, if farmers are finding it hard to find vets when their cows are giving birth, we could invest in training individuals to become midwives for cows. They would be highly skilled in performing specific procedures related to pregnancy and birth.”
Malta Veterinary Association president Andrew Agius said that it is unreasonable to attempt to persuade practising veterinarians with clinics and a growing business to leave it all behind and tend to farm animals.
Rather, we need to encourage new vets to consider this line of work through programmes and incentives.
“Most veterinarians don’t specialise in large animals and most of those who do choose to work with horses because it is a more profitable industry,” he said.
“But if we had to invest in a robust system that performs routine health and safety checks on farms, then this could become a feasible line of work.
“The country would only need a handful of full-time vets who are specialised on farm animals and each one would be responsible to tend to farms in a particular region of the islands.”
Agius said the association is willing to sit down with farmers’ cooperatives and the animal welfare commissioner to find a way forward.
Questions sent to Agriculture Minister Anton Refalo and Animal Rights Parliamentary Secretary Alicia Bugeja Said remained unanswered.
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