Home » Some veterinarians curtail 24-hour emergency service

Some veterinarians curtail 24-hour emergency service

Four-and-a-half years ago, Sand Road Animal Hospital (SRAH) in Falls Village, Conn., bought the Millerton Veterinary Practice, expanding their business both by customer base and geographically.

At the same time they announced they would no longer be available around-the-clock for emergencies.

A letter sent to all their customers advised them to seek the services of an emergency pet clinic if a need arose in the hours when Sand Road was closed.

There was an outcry at the time among area pet owners; and though most Sand Road clients have either adjusted or moved on by now, periodically there is another round of questioning: Why isn’t there 24-hour emergency service for pets here?

The questions arise, often, in response to events. Recently, a Sand Road client’s dog died en route to an emergency clinic in Avon, Conn. And a few months ago, a car accident took the life of a pickup truck driver; his dog was in the vehicle at the time, and was injured. The EMT volunteers on the scene wanted to get emergency care for the dog — and had to drive an hour to find a clinic that was open.

Many people still think wistfully of veterinarians (particularly in a rural area) as versions of the famous English doctor, James Herriott, beloved author of “All Creatures Great and Small.”

And in fact, David Sandefer, chief vet and owner of Sand Road Animal Hospital, shares many of Herriott’s qualities; foremost, his genial manner and parental concern for his patients. By the age of 14 he was working on a dairy farm, and worked at the Rome Veterinary Hospital all the way through high school, undergraduate college and vet school. (He graduated from Cornell University in 1983.) For many years he was taking care of everything that walked in the door, large or small and “If he was not sleeping he was working seven days a week,” his wife, Cindy, said. Cindy Sandefer is also the hospital administrator for SRAH.

But veterinary medicine has evolved substantially from the days when the barn also served as the operating room. And many of those changes are also responsible for the current standard of local practices providing everyday care and ER hospitals handling after-hours emergencies.

Interviews with local veterinarians, ER clinics and even administrators at two of the leading veterinary schools in the country paint a picture of a profession that has substantially changed from 30 years ago.

Traditions versus trends

“Traditionally, 20 or 30 years ago, everyone did their own emergencies,” said Katherine Skiff-Kane, whose practice, Housatonic Veterinary Care, is in Cornwall Bridge, Conn.

“People’s expectations were different,” she said. “You were one person and they understood [the limitations]. Practices in neighboring towns would have taken turns being on call at night or on the weekends, so that the brunt of the after-hours work didn’t fall on one person or practice.”

And 30 years ago, the vast majority of vets were men. Harvey Hayden, who has a practice in Sharon, and Kent Kay, who for years ran the Millerton Veterinary Practice, echoed the same sentiment: Times have changed, technology has changed, people have changed.

And, they noted, the attitude of doctors toward their practices has changed.

“For me, [the attitude] is I do things until they’re done,” Hayden said.  

Kay agreed: “My attitude is, they’re my clients, I’ll take care of them.”

Paul Schwartz has been a practicing vet for 27 years. He owns and runs the Center for Veterinary Care in Millbrook, and says that being a veterinarian has been “incorporated into my life.” But he doesn’t feel that everyone in the business takes the same approach, and had some stringent words for many of his competitors.

“It’s a societal change,” he said.

Small animal vs. large

The older, male vets in this region say they were trained as general practitioners. For some of them, the majority of their work was large animal: mostly cattle and sheep and some horses. The tradition of 24-hour care is still alive and well in the large animal practices in the area.

The much-discussed woes of the dairy business have also impacted veterinary care. Rural areas that used to support small family farms and larger dairy operations needed vets who were willing to travel to the farm. While “Doc” was there inoculating the herd he could also take a look at Bowser’s paw.

In the last 10 to 15 years, as the need for large animal veterinarians has declined due to dairy operations closing, the need for small-animal practices has grown.

General practitioners

vs. specialists

In keeping with the changes in what kinds of animals Americans keep (and seek care for), veterinary education has changed and expanded.

Kathy Salisbury is the assistant dean for academic affairs at the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine in Indiana. She said, “There is an increase in species studies and specialties. Students still get general teaching, but the breakdown is approximately one third of the class will be on a mixed track, one half will specialize in small animal and the rest will be divided between equine and ‘food’ animals.”  

These days, equine practice is its own specialty in veterinarian schools —and in the real world as well. Where general practice vets used to take care of a cow or a cat, the equine vet is only trained to take care of horses.

And as the study and care of animals by doctors has changed, so has the way that people treat their domestic animals. The pet has come in from the cold.

“The dog has gone from being tied outside in the doghouse to sleeping in the bedroom,” said Sandefer.

And Skiff-Kane said she believes there has been a huge transition. “People who don’t have children or whose children are grown ... for them, the pet becomes a surrogate [child].”

With that shift has come a change in perception, attitude and expectation for the care of the pet. An animal, be it dog or cat, that sleeps on or sometimes even in the bed of its owner is a highly valued member of the family.

Emergency Rooms for pets

But at the same time that pet owners have come to expect human-level care for their pets, more and more veterinary practices have stopped answering their phones after they’ve closed the office door for the night.

Cindy Sandefer is at pains to point out that at Sand Road, “We handle a lot of emergencies through-out the day and into the evening. We see a lot of emergencies on Saturdays and Sundays. We see clients from other practices when their offices are closed.”

Sand Road is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays from 8 a.m. to noon.

But she doesn’t dispute that when the door is closed and the lights are turned out, their clients must go elsewhere.

“Ninety-eight percent of our client base is getting superior service,” she said. “The other 2 percent of our clients have a place to go — even if it’s inconvenient, expensive and they have to travel.”

Sand Road even lists emergency vet options prominently on its Web site. If a client has an after-hours emergency, the Sand Road answering machine or service will direct the clients to a veterinary hospital that specializes in emergencies.

This follows a national trend.

ER advantages

The veterinary ER has a full range of diagnostic and surgical apparatus available — including technology that is often too expensive for a small veterinary practitioner to afford.

“Technology has improved by leaps and bounds,” Harvey Hayden noted. “This means that to equip a hospital becomes very expensive. It’s got to be pretty well equipped to handle the variety of crises; and emergency care has become a specialty in itself.”

There are two ways of looking at cost as it relates to emergencies.

Sand Road Animal Hospital is very well equipped. “We have phenomenal toys in our building,” Sandefer said. “We have great facilities.”

But emergency service requires more than just machinery. Two nearby animal ERs — in Pittsfield and Avon — employ one vet and two techs per shift. There might also be a receptionist on staff. The lights are on and the machines are warmed up. And all these things cost money.

If Herriott had a daughter …

Perhaps the most significant impact on all veterinary practices is the increase in women taking up veterinary careers. Nearly 80 percent of the students in vet school are now women. As recently as the 1980s, it was still about a 50-50 ratio of men to women.

And most vets would agree: This new generation of vets has made it a priority to set aside time for family and home. The days when a vet would get up during dinner and leave his spouse alone to put the children to bed have ended.

Going right to the heart of the matter, Sandefer said, “We were able to attract and retain good vets because we no longer did emergency through the night.”

Douglas Hart of Pine Plains Veterinary graduated from vet school in 1967. While his practice no longer does 24-hour response (they stopped in 2008), he sees the dilemma from both side.

“These young vets are very well trained and dedicated,” he said. “But they have a different life philosophy than we did years ago.”

What’s the answer?

Many people who reside in the Tri-state area live here precisely because of the rural character and remove from interstate highways and suburban shopping malls — those same strip malls that might house a 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic.

Yet their expectations are for the service of many years ago with the technology of today. Is this possible?

Substantially more women in the profession, advances in veterinary medicine and technology, a shift within the profession toward specialties, the decline of large-animal practices and an increase in small-animal, and the migration of the family pet from the barn to the bedroom all contribute to a new paradigm.  

But this doesn’t mean that it is impossible to get a veterinarian to answer your SOS in the middle of the night.

In the Tri-state area there are still at least three veterinary practices that take care of their clients at all hours. But don’t plan to call them at midnight unless you’re a regular client.

EMERGENCY ANIMAL CARE

Hours and emergency options vary at area animal hospitals. Don’t assume that if a practice is open that they will take an emergency call; policies will differ from practice to practice. It’s best to call before there’s an emergency, and keep the number of the closest one in a handy place. Here are some of the choices.

Sand Road Animal Hospital
Dr. Dave Sandefer, Dr. Jennifer Kline, Dr. Katie Vagliano,  Dr. Amy Damers
136 Sand Road
Falls Village, Conn.
860-824-5223
Multi-vet practice; small-animal

Dr. Harvey Hayden
Cornwall Bridge Road
Sharon, Conn.
860-364-0058
Solo practice; large
and small-animal

Dr. Katherine Skiff-Kane
Housatonic Veterinary Care
23 Kent Road
Cornwall Bridge, Conn.
860-672-4948
Solo practice; large  and small animal; specialty in New World camelids (e.g., llamas and alpacas)

Millerton Veterinary Practice
(affiliated with Sand Road)
Dr. Carolyn Parker Cannon,
Dr. Katie Vagliano
199 Route 44 East
Millerton, N.Y.
518-789-3440
Multi-vet practice; small-animal

Dr. Kent Kay
Millerton, N.Y.
518-789-3378
Solo practice; equine only

Dr. J. M. Strauss
Webutuck School Road
Amenia, N.Y.
845-373-9587
Solo practice; small-animal
Pine Plains Veterinary
Dr. Douglas Hart, Dr. Dorraine Waldow, Dr. Caroline Helm-Van Kleeck
2825 Church St.
Pine Plains, N.Y.
518-398-9494
Multi-vet practice; large-
and small-animal

Dr. Barbara Clayton
County Route 83
Pine Plains, N.Y.
518-398-9878
Solo practice; small-animal

Center for Veterinary Care
Dr. Paul Schwartz, Dr. Emily Elliot
Dr. Kim Roellke, Dr. Alberta Crum
680 State Road 343, Millbrook, N.Y.
845-677-8800
Multi-vet practice; Large
and small-animal

Copake Veterinary Hospital
Dr. Bill Rasweiler, Dr. George Beneke, Dr. Jonathan Duryea,
Dr. Shelly Mackowski,
Dr. Suzannah Strauss
Copake, N.Y.
518-329-6162
Multi-vet practice; large
and small-animal

Dr. Jayme Mottler
Hoof & Paw
Veterinary Services
House- and farm-calls
in New York, Connecticut
and Massachusetts
914-489-1371

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