- Associated Press - Sunday, December 4, 2016

ASTORIA, Ore. (AP) - A few weeks ago, shortly before 11 p.m., Patti Brockhoff’s 3-year-old pug, Babette, started behaving oddly, as if she were having a prolonged seizure, so she called her regular veterinarian.

But her vet wasn’t on call that night, and the on-call vet couldn’t be reached, either.

Brockhoff, of Astoria, finally called Tanasbourne Veterinary Emergency in Beaverton. Over the phone, the staff recognized the symptoms: Babette had ingested some of Brockhoff’s medical marijuana.

“It was funny afterwards, but not then,” she told The Daily Astorian (https://bit.ly/2fNUyj5).

Brockhoff confronted a familiar predicament of pet owners in small, rural communities: the imperfect, hit-or-miss nature of local after-hour emergency services.

Five regional veterinary clinics - Astoria Animal Hospital, Columbia Veterinary Hospital, Bayshore Animal Hospital, Seaside Pet Clinic and Oceanside Animal Clinic in Seaview, Washington - participate in an on-call rotation that serves Clatsop and Pacific counties out-of-hours, including on weekends and holidays.

On-call hours vary; some vets take calls until 10 p.m., others through the night. Usually, the clinics themselves don’t remain open.

“Even though we have this common schedule that we follow, everybody kind of does it their own way,” Dr. Brad Pope, founder and hospital director at Bayshore, said.

Each clinic leaves an outgoing message for clients announcing who is on duty and how to reach that person.

“If Seaside was on call tonight, we’d have the doctor’s number available to contact so he can triage what’s going on,” said Tricia Kroczynski, veterinary assistant at Seaside Pet Clinic.

Depending on the vet and the circumstances - perhaps a more urgent pet crisis is taking place - it may not be possible to get emergency pet care locally till morning.

A clinic in the Portland metro area may be the only recourse.

Professional practicalities

The rotation system has limitations, but such a system is rare on the Oregon and Washington coasts, according to Pope.

“I think our rotation is actually a little bit uncommon, in that we provide as much as we do,” he said. “But I do know that some people end up having to take that drive to Hillsboro.”

In general, it is not uncommon, he said, for pet owners to make emergency trips to big-city clinics. (Safe Harbor Animal Hospital in Warrenton recommends that their clients contact a clinic in Vancouver, Washington, after business hours.)

It takes a fairly large population center to support around-the-clock emergency clinics. On the North Coast, there simply aren’t enough pet emergencies to justify keeping an animal hospital open through the night.

The last time Pope was on rotation, he received two phone calls, neither of them dire.

“To have a 24-hour emergency clinic open, to pay somebody to answer the phone two times a night, would never be economically feasible,” he said, adding that pet emergencies rarely occur after midnight.

Dr. Dannell Davis, owner of Astoria Animal Hospital, pointed out that “the people that have the skills, that are willing to work in the middle of the night - guess what - are expensive. You can’t pay them minimum wage. They won’t do it.”

It may actually be better, during emergencies, for pet owners to head to a Portland clinic, where a full staff and high-tech equipment await them.

In addition, veterinarians assume a handful of risks when they work alone.

They are required by state statute to provide a certain standard of care, regardless of the hour. If in the dead of night, a vet without the aid of trained technicians cannot save, say, a dog struck by a car, the dog’s owner could complain to the Oregon State Veterinary Medical Examining Board.

The vet could be penalized for trying to help, Davis said.

“We love what we do. But there’s professional practicalities that we have to take into consideration,” she said.

Safety, security and sanity

The risks of night work aren’t merely legal. There are safety and security concerns as well.

“It’s very scary, especially when you’re on your own,” she said, adding, “We’re coming in to meet people that we don’t know, by ourselves. How smart is that?”

Davis, who usually takes calls until 10 p.m., has had domestic abuse situations take place in her clinic. She’s had pet owners show up drunk (and later lambaste her on social media). Many people show up and can’t pay their bill.

Other factors people don’t see play into a vet’s decision not to force themselves, or their staff, to work late nights.

It pays to prevent employees from experiencing compassion fatigue, especially in a profession with a high churn rate - and an inordinately high suicide rate.

“It’s a physically and emotionally demanding profession, and, for a lot of them, after a really hard, bad day, being up all night can be very difficult,” Pope said.

Davis said it’s tough for veterinarians when they cannot treat every emergency - and it’s tough when they have to.

“You want to help. You don’t want people to hate you because you’re not superhuman,” she said. “But yet you also . you get one chance at this life. Do I want to spend it working and dealing with emergencies, and then fighting people to pay the bill?”

Gaps

Pope acknowledges that sometimes emergencies get lost in the rotation system. Some pet owners just can’t make it to Portland.

“I think, all in all, it works well, and it’s a pretty good system. We live a long way out here, and so we do the best we can,” he said.

Erin Anderson, of Astoria, recently lost her 14-year-old cat, Eeny. When the feline suffered a stroke after midnight, Anderson was unable to reach a vet. Eeny died at around 7:30 a.m.

Anderson, 65, and her husband have night vision problems that would have prevented them from driving to Portland. They also own a handful of other pets that would have needed babysitting.

It’s highly possible that Eeny would have died even if he had seen a vet. But Anderson said she would have appreciated having a doctor around to give Eeny painkillers, or to euthanize him.

“I like the vets here. All the vets are very nice people. I’m not knocking any one of them. I admire what they do. I know it’s tough on a rural area,” she said. “But it’s tougher on us whose pets die in our arms.”

Anderson said she doesn’t know what the solution is, but she wants to keep a public conversation going about how to close occasional gaps in services that can occur from dusk to dawn.

Prepare

Davis always tells her clients that they should have a back-up plan. “Yes, it’s a drive to Portland, but they need to be prepared for that,” she said.

If people choose to own pets and live in a rural area - two hours from the nearest 24-hour clinic - then, she said, they must understand that the trade-off is in not having access to 24-hour care locally.

“Animals hurt, and it breaks our heart. It breaks my heart,” she said. “But owners need to be proactive with their animals.”

___

Information from: The Daily Astorian, https://www.dailyastorian.com


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