It’s 1.55 am and you’re about to enter your 96th working hour this week as the night vet in a busy emergency clinic. In another seven hours you get to go home and see your own pets and your own bed. You’re hoping your partner will remember your name since they see so little of you. But first you have to remove a bleeding spleen from a German Shepherd Dog, x-ray a cat’s broken pelvis and do a full blood count on an unstable diabetic. Plus, the other nine in-patients need medications, observations, dressing changes, drips flushing and adjusting, feeding, walking and cleaning out. Clinical notes have to be written, owners updated, and paperwork finished.
The telephone rings. It’s not economically viable to have an all-night receptionist, and the nurse is busy preparing the shepherd for surgery, so you pick up the phone yourself…
Vet: Emergency vet here, can I help you?
Caller: What it is… I’m really worried about my puppy Gucci, he’s been throwing up for 3 days and now he’s collapsed and there’s blood pouring from his back end.. I don’t think he’ll make it til morning!
Vet: [suppressing the urge to ask why they’ve left it this long] That doesn’t sound too good, we should have a look at him straight away. How old is Gucci and what breed is he?
Caller: He’s 10 weeks old I think, he’s a Lhasajuggapoodoggle.
Vet: [bewildered by the latest designer dog name] And has he had his vaccinations?
Caller: They said he had, yeah.
Vet: [sighing internally because you know what’s coming] Were you given a vaccination certificate when you bought him?
Caller: No but they said he’d had everything he’d need..
Vet: I’m concerned he may not be vaccinated if the breeder didn’t provide documents. Do you know if Gucci’s mum was vaccinated? Did she seem healthy?
Caller: I dunno, I met them at the motorway services..
Vet: [repeating for the benefit of the nurse within earshot] The motorway services…?!
You glance up at the nurse in quiet despair. She smiles grimly and points to the digital display on the multi-parameter monitor, drawing your attention to the fact that the shepherd’s blood pressure is falling despite blood replacement products. You need to end the call soon and go to theatre.
Vet: Ok, well make your way down to the clinic in Blogsville: the postcode for your sat nav is BLO6 1ME. Before you travel I’m obliged to let you know that the emergency consult fee is £133.80. We can give you an estimate for Gucci’s treatment when we’ve examined him.
Caller: [incredulous] How much? I don’t have that kind of money!
Vet: [wondering how much a Lhasajuggapoodoggle costs] Do you have any pet insurance for Gucci?
Caller: No. I might get some money next month though.
Vet: Unfortunately we are not allowed to offer credit, you are of course free to obtain it from the usual sources, just as you would for any other unexpected bill.
Caller: I can’t do that, are you telling me I have to just let him die..?
Vet: Not at all. We would never refuse to see a suffering animal. But unfortunately, unlike human health care, animal health care is not free at the point of treatment. If you can’t afford treatment, we can offer emergency first aid to safeguard welfare .
Caller: What does that mean?
Your ongoing tension headache tightens its vicious grip as you contemplate the options. You know this puppy probably has parvo virus, almost 100% preventable . If so, the cost of treatment will be very high, as these puppies are high dependency for a long period. They are miserably sick, and some of them will still die, upsetting everyone involved. You also know that no amount of ’emergency first-aid’ will do.
Vet: [still aware of the need to get on with the spleen surgery] We wouldn’t know what that would mean until we had looked at him. I’m concerned that he may have a dangerous virus, and if so he may need a long stay in hospital. You may be eligible for charity help, but if not the treatment may be expensive. If you cannot afford it, you may be able to sign Gucci over into the care of a charity, but when he recovers he would be re-homed. Also, as a last resort, we sometimes have to consider euthanasia in these cases.
Caller:[angry] What? That’s disgusting! You’re telling me you won’t treat my animal because I can’t pay, and [shouting] you’re supposed to love animals! I’m going to write to the papers…
Pressing the ‘speaker’ button, you lay your forehead down to rest on the cool white work surface, and, as the caller shouts into the void, you allow yourself to drift off, just for a moment, to another place..
You see, caller, it hurts me when you say I don’t love animals. I was a straight A student in school; I could have done other things, but I wanted to do this because I love animals. I could have done medicine, dentistry or law, and had twice the salary for half the suicide rate. But I love animals. Please don’t misunderstand me, caller- I love my job and I don’t regret doing it. It’s an outstanding privilege to be trusted with the life-or-death care of much loved four-legged family members. And I can tell you love your puppy too. But caller, love isn’t just sentiment, it’s also responsibility and duty. I know you’re frightened and angry, and you’ve got yourself in a situation you can’t handle, but I am not responsible for it. You don’t just have a moral duty, you have a legal one- under the terms of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 you are obliged to make provision for all aspects of your animal’s care . I have an even longer list of obligations- so many I sometimes lie awake and worry about them. But paying for your pet’s medical treatment when you can’t or won’t is not one of them. This job costs me enough already.
1. Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (2016) Code of Professional Conduct, [online] Available online: http://www.rcvs.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/code-of-professional-conduct-for-veterinary-surgeons/pdf/ [Accessed 24/11/16]
2.Veterinary Medicines Directorate (2016) VMD position paper on authorised vaccination schedules for dogs, [online] Available online: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/485325/Vaccines_VMDPositionPapaer.pdf [Accessed 24/11/16]
3.Veterinary Record (2013) CAWC looks at ways of raising awareness of pet animals’ needs, [online] Available online: http://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/content/172/21/544.extract. [Accessed 24/11/16].