Rural Alaska

North Slope’s sole veterinarian is gone, leaving pet owners in a bind

Utqiaġvik doesn’t have a veterinarian starting Monday, officials said, which significantly limits the services available in the region.

Residents in all North Slope communities now don’t have a place locally to get their pets vaccinated, diagnosed, spayed or neutered, according to the Monday announcement from the North Slope Borough Department of Health and Social Services. Conducting X-rays and surgeries, euthanasia and dispensing medication are also among services now suspended.

Borough officials didn’t explain why veterinarian Kristina Hubbard is not employed with the department anymore. Hubbard also declined to comment when reached over the phone last week.

Without a vet on staff, the department can’t issue health certificates to animals, necessary for some pet boarding and grooming services, as well as for travel in Alaska Airlines cargo holds. Residents don’t need health certificates to take small or service animals in the Alaska Airlines passenger cabin or to fly them in any part of the Northern Air Cargo or Wright Air planes.

The North Slope Borough will still provide assistance with loose animals and sell supplies and nonprescription food, officials wrote in the statement.

For diagnosing and prescribing treatments, pet owners can call animal hospitals and veterinary clinics in Anchorage or Fairbanks, “but there is no guarantee of telehealth options without a physical exam,” borough officials said.

Besides losing its only veterinarian, the department also lost the public health officer: Hubbard filled both positions.

“The departing veterinary and health officer was extremely helpful, especially during the pandemic,” said former borough health department director Glenn Sheehan, who used to work with Hubbard. “She’s trained in epidemiology and was able to step up and abide by ever-changing rules.”

Reduced services for pets can affect the community in various ways.

“My huge concern is that now new puppies are going to be born, and they’re not going to be vaccinated in a timely manner. It’s just going to become a huge problem,” said Lyndall Soule, a former Utqiaġvik veterinarian.

Soule said that without regular spaying and neutering services, the villages might eventually become overpopulated with dogs. If residents are unable to house all dogs, animals might starve or freeze to death in winter.

Another crucial service now on hold in the borough is vaccinating animals against rabies, a virus that infects mammals including humans and spreads through animal bites. In the North Slope region, rabies is enzootic, or always present on some level, Sheehan said.

“The majority of foxes in the Arctic carry rabies,” Sheehan said, “and if you get bit by a fox or your dog is bit by a fox, it can be a real disaster.”

Administering rabies shots might become possible again if the state approves the lay vaccinator program for the region, borough officials said. It’s a longtime state initiative that allows nonmedical professionals to vaccinate dogs and cats.

Meanwhile, to recruit a primary veterinarian, officials said they reached out to the State Veterinary Office, private practices and veterinary medicine schools.

Recruitment challenges at the clinic are ongoing. According to the borough’s statement, “a second veterinarian position has been posted on the North Slope Borough’s website for more than two years.” Eventually, the substitute veterinarian position was changed to two village animal control officer positions to bring more services to borough communities.

“There has been an outcry for more local village animal control officers,” borough officials said.

That change wasn’t popular among some members of the public — including Soule, who used to work as a vet at the clinic from 2013 until 2019.

“They can’t really do anything,” she said about village animal control officers. “They can’t vaccinate, they can’t provide pets with medical services.”

The clinic used to have two veterinarians for several years during Soule’s career. She said that with two vets, it was possible to make sure that the animals in all the villages were vaccinated twice a year free of charge, as well as spayed and neutered.

“It worked great because one of us could do village travel,” Soule said, “and then the other one would be in town.”

Sheehan said that when he worked at the department, having two veterinarians on staff helped keep their workload manageable.

“What it meant was that the vet didn’t get worn out or just destroyed by constantly working or alternatively going on leave,” Sheehan said.

Borough officials said they are now shifting recruiting efforts toward finding a primary veterinarian to provide services for all North Slope communities.

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

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