The pages of newspapers are often littered with stories about overcrowded accident and emergency departments all too often being packed with people whose ailments never justified a visit in the first place.
But what about emergency services for animals?
Out-of-hours services for furry friends, ranging from cats and dogs to muntjac deer suffering after a road traffic accident, are always in demand. And with Christmas coming up, there will be plenty of vets on duty while most people are simply choosing which festive films to watch on television.
I was recently invited to the out-of-hours vets’ service, Vets Now, for a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the work they do. The organisation uses the PDSA site, in Monks Pond Street, Northampton, during the night and throughout weekends.
Linked with eight vets’ surgeries across Northampton and 15 in Northamptonshire as a whole, emergency calls from these centres are referred through to Vets Now, so the most urgent cases can be seen, even in the most unsocial hours.
When I visited the team, one Sunday afternoon, I was met by vet Megan Conroy and clinic manager, Sarah Rance. Unusually, the intrepid duo who have to be on call to deal with all creatures great and small, were having a quiet day. Apart from one slightly sad-looking dog being cared for in a kennel, there was little else going on in terms of visits.
Sarah explained: “It really varies. On an average night, Monday to Friday, it is between four and eight cases. On a bad night we are looking at up to 20. Some will be quick in-and-out cases, some critically urgent ones.
“In some of these cases there are people who just need reassurance, but the larger portion of cases could not wait to see the vets the next day.
“Most of the animals we see are pets, but we do get some strays and wildlife. We treat wildlife for free.”
The average number of Northamptonshire cases seen by Vets Now in a typical week is 30 and the team have to be ready for anything.
Megan said the experience is very different from her previous work in a daytime practice.
“It is completely different. It is more practical. We could spend four hours seeing dogs, but three hours would be vaccinating. We did one night a week and one weekend on call. There would be nights when I could go to sleep and think ‘oh no, did I miss a phone call?’
“Now I have to sleep all day so when I do surgery at 3am it is normal. When I speak to my friends who work in day practices they tell me ‘you seem so calm about it’, but nothing you see is predictable.
“There are accidents that happen, dogs can end up eating chocolate, but chocolate is toxic to dogs. At Christmas time, New Year and Easter, we have a massive influx of dogs eating chocolate. Some accidentally eat human drugs which are also toxic to dogs and cats. We get calls like ‘I dropped my muscle relaxant and the dog ate it’.”
Sarah said: “Depending on what we are dealing with, we deal with a lot of emergencies from the RSPCA. Inspectors will bring in urgent RSPCA cases and we will treat them.”
The team works closely with other animal emergency services, such as Pet Blood Bank UK, which is the only charity of its kind to provide a canine blood bank service for vets across the UK.
Sarah added: “It is the only blood bank in the country for dogs and we really rely on it. We also use the Veterinary Poison Information Services which vets can access and they will provide information on any poisons that can affect a dog. It is very useful to have that information. There is also Robin’s Pet Travel Services we use, who transport pets in need.”
Although cats and dogs make up 93 per cent of the out-of-hours work at Vets Now, about one per cent is wildlife, so vets need to know how to treat and handle a variety of animals.
Sarah said: “We have taken foxes out of the back of police officers’ cars, we have had birds of prey, injured muntjacs and a lost racing pigeon. We have seen tarantulas, iguanas, bearded dragons. We even had a marmoset. But we still mostly see dogs and cats.”
At this time of year, chocolate and tinsel can prove common hazards for pets when they are consumed.
Sarah said: “We see all the usual cases and things like dogs with corn on the cobs stuck in their stomachs, or kebab sticks. One of the most serious cases was a dog who was brought in because he had a lump. I took him for a walk, looked down and saw that he had a kebab stick sticking out of the side of his body.”
She added: “We also get cats who play with tinsel but it can get inside them and slice their intestines.”
Elsewhere in the county, much of the emergency care of animals inevitably ends up being handled by charities.
At Animals In Need, in Little Irchester, the bulk of out-of-hours work involves wildlife. As with human emergencies, the charity’s experience has seen that their service can be open to abuse, for example from those who ring in the early hours of the morning because they would like their dog rehomed.
For this reason, Roy and Annette Marriott (who run the organisation) have a recorded message system so they can respond to genuine emergencies.
The charity will often attend middle-of-the-night rescues and the small team works closely with Vets4Pets at St James, Northampton, to access emergency veterinary treatment.
The charity, which can hold between 300 and 400 animals at a time, is in the process of extending its wildlife unit to cope with the amount of emergency work it regularly deals with.
Roy said: “If it is a real emergency we can go out. A lot of the time, with the police, it is swans. We have had a few calls out for deer, but we can only cover a certain area.
“We have so many calls from people who want to get rid of animals, we have to ask people to leave a message on our emergency phone and we will get back to them if it is an emergency.”
He continued: “Most of it [out-of-hours emergencies] is wildlife rather than pets as people won’t pick up wildlife and take it to the vet. Most of the urgent cases we get are animals being hit by cars in the evening, but that is not to say with some of the ‘road kill’ it couldn’t have been other causes. They could have been put in the road afterwards.”