Dr. Fabian Uehlinger is a new faculty member at the WCVM. Photo by Michael Robin.

New WCVM professor brings bovine expertise

When Dr. Fabienne Uehlinger set her sights on becoming a veterinarian, it wasn't to treat pets or companion animals such as horses. Instead, she chose cattle.

"I think that farmers are such a great clientele to work with," she says. "They have a natural approach I think, with a level head on their shoulders. They are into it because they make a living off it and I like supporting their livelihoods in my role as a veterinarian."

Uehlinger discovered Canadian veterinary medicine during a high school exchange to Prince Edward Island, home of the Atlantic Veterinary College (AVC). While completing her DVM in Switzerland in 2002, she did an externship at AVC, and later returned there to work on her PhD degree, which she completed in 2007. She completed a large animal internal medicine internship and residency on P.E.I. in 2011 before travelling to Laos to work on a development project with Veterinarians Without Borders-Vétérinaires sans Frontières (VWB-VSF). She arrived at the University of Saskatchewan in November 2014.

While bovine health is still a male-dominated field, Uehlinger is adamant with her students that this should make no difference.

"There is very little that you cannot do as a woman, just because you're small," she says, explaining that much of the job is technique, properly applied. It's an essential approach for workplace safety when working with animals many times human weight and size.

"If you have a cow that's basically going mad, if you weigh 100 pounds or 200 pounds, you probably won't fly quite as far," she quips. "But if the cow decides she's going to get rid of you, she probably will, no matter how heavy you are."

For Uehlinger, a bigger challenge for her students and for food animal veterinarians is ethics, and she advises them to lean towards evidence-based care. While this may seem obvious, things are never black and white in the field. For example, tests might be needed to find the right medication, but sometimes time and budget demands that the veterinarian must make a judgement call.

"What a food animal vet is very frequently challenged with is finding that balance between economic bottom line for the producer and best animal welfare as well as evidence-based practice," she says. "These ethical decisions are never, ever black or white, even though they might seem very much like that in the classroom and it's easy to judge. But when you're actually out there talking to the producer, it's very grey most of the time.

Economics and health also factor into Uehlinger's research interest in parasitology, specifically worms and their growing resistance to deworming agents.

"It's a large and emerging issue that deserves further attention in Western Canada," she says.

Uehlinger is also acutely aware of the economics of cattle in the developing world. A producer in Canada with a large herd might be able to absorb the loss of an animal without losing their livelihood. But for a producer in the developing world, that animal might represent most or all of the family's wealth. Protecting the health of these animals – and the people that depend upon them – is a priority.

To this end, Uehlinger continues to work with partners such as VWB-VSF on a study in Laos comparing veterinary medical interventions in animal health between villages to see how they affect animal health and productivity. Another collaborative effort in Kenya is looking at cow-calf nutrition and welfare.

"My motivation for doing research is to work with the producers to find ways to improve animal health and welfare and productivity," she says. "For me, this is really, really important."

By Michael Robin, University of Saskatchewan Research Communications Specialist. Reprinted with permission from On Campus News (news.usask.ca).
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