In a world where animals are some of our best friends, veterinarians are there to care for our furry companions.
But some animals, specifically large animals, take a different set of skills to care for.
Dr. Keith Immerkar graduated from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in 1997, and pursued large animal veterinarian work since then.
“I worked in some clinics for a few years in Southern Alberta, but in 2003, my wife and I had the opportunity to move back to Swan River,” he said. “There were several circumstances that happened, and now we’ve been back for 14 years and are really enjoying it.”
Immerkar joined the Swan Valley Veterinary Clinic (SVVC) in 2003, with his main focus on bovine reproductive health.
“I am now owner and operator of my own practice, with my business partner being Dr. Lana Tokar,” he said.
“I focus on large food animal veterinarian work.”
Noting that most schools require a science degree before entry into the veterinary program, whether it is a science, zoology or animal science degree, the program is very competitive.
“It’s a similar process to dentistry or medical school,” Immerkar said. “It’s a three to four year degree, followed by four years in the vet program.
“During school, most of the training is very general until the last year or so, when you can get more specific. I am getting more specific all the time.
“There’s a lot of training that you do after school - seminars for a week here or there,” Immerkar continued. “Every year, we go away for training, depending on your interests, where you live, and the business you do. That way the training is more focused.
“Dr. Tokar has taken on small animal dentistry, whereas I am focused more on assisted reproduction in beef cattle, which includes embryo transfer, artificial insemination (AI), and freezing semen.”
Immerkar’s background growing up was with cattle, and he noted that this played into his decision to pursue large animal veterinary.
“I don’t know if I ever decided that this was the thing I wanted to do,” he said. “I was a farm kid and thought it would be interesting and challenging.
“My heart wasn’t so set on it that if I didn’t get into the program, I was going to be heartbroken.
“My background with large animals and my personality really played into deciding to do large over small animal care,” Immerkar continued. “It’s a totally different job.
“In large animal, there’s less emotion, as it’s a lot more about economics, and what needs to be done. In small animal, there’s a lot more emotion, and I never really connected with that the same way. I’m more on the business side of things.”
When he started at the SVVC, Immerkar noted that Dr. Jim Dyck and Dr. Rex Leach were the practicing veterinarians at the time.
“They were the ‘jack of all trades’,” he said. “They focused on individual animals, doing c-sections, pulling calves, spaying dogs, and worked incredible hours. I don’t know how they did it for all those years.
“Even when I started practicing (in Alberta), the day to day was whatever came in the door - a sick cow, twisted stomach, c-section. Basically, we went around and put out fires and fixed sick animals.
“Around 2003, things changed dramatically when BSE hit the cattle industry,” Immerkar continued. “At that point, there was less money to put towards sick animals, and the business model changed drastically.
“Farms got bigger because profitability changed. The individual animal tensions changed.
The BSE crisis changed the way Immerkar and other large animal vets did their work.
“When people think about what I do, they often think about calving, which I do, but not to the same extent as I did,” Immerkar said. “Many calves are born on grass now.
“Because the game changed, I began to focus more on genetics and prevention,” Immerkar continued. “It’s not so much worrying about one cow, it’s about keeping the herd healthy.”
Immerkar says the focus on prevention and productive programs assists farmers with overall herd health.
“I do a lot of pregnancy testing in the fall, and bull fertility testing in the spring,” he said. “I’ve also expanded on that and do applied reproduction as well.
“I’ve had the chance to work overseas with some of this kind of work as well.”
At the end of the day, Immerkar thoroughly enjoys his line of work, noting that while many people don’t really like their jobs, he is the opposite.
“Ninety-five percent of the time, I like Monday mornings,” he said. “Yes, there may be days that aren’t so great, but nine times out of 10, even those days are challenging. And, I know I made the right choice because I enjoy going to work.
“What really gets me excited are the embryo transfer and export projects. No one really wakes up and wishes they could do a prolapse at 2 a.m. in the middle of a field. That’s part of the job, and it gets done, but that’s not what excites me anymore.”
Immerkar added that there are definitely challenges that come with his job.
“The most challenging things are the ones you can’t plan for,” he said. “Herd production jobs are planned days and weeks in advance, but things that call me out of kids birthday parties or away from anniversary celebrations, or away in the middle of Saturday evening, those are things you have to do, but it really affects your family and what you can plan.
“I miss a lot of weekend hockey trips with my children because I have to be around to work the phone, and that, by far, makes not very many people want to do large animal vet work.
“But as challenging as it’s been, it’s exciting,” Immerkar concluded. “It’s a career of life-long learning, where I try new things. At the end of the day, I like animals and I enjoy my work.”