Vet swamped with Christmas emergencies

·4 min read

When Dr. Maggie Brown-Bury’s orange tabby, Stewie, ended up in Stage 4 kidney failure this Christmas, her main concern was keeping him hydrated and comfortable.

That’s not easy when you’re the only veterinarian on duty Christmas Day and you’re having one of your busiest days in years.

“It was challenging, because of course I would have loved to just obsess over my own cat, but I had to deal with what was coming in the door,” Brown-Bury said Monday, not long before heading to a Christmas dinner at her in-laws’ to make up for the one she missed. “Luckily I have a great staff, so I knew my cat was getting the care he needed with the ICU staff.”

Brown-Bury had the Christmas evening shift at the Veterinary Specialty Centre on Topsail Road, where other clinics in the metro area send their emergencies.

“I think our grand total for the day was 30 emergencies,” she said. “And they were all true emergencies. On Christmas Day, no one’s bringing their dog in because they’re looking at them funny. They’re bringing them in because they ate someone else’s present, or they ate their own present.”

Christmas Eve, when she first brought Stewie into work, was quiet. She’d known since March her cat had failing kidneys, but only realized when he had a seizure that things had gone from bad to worse.

His potassium and pH blood levels were very low, and he was dehydrated.

“He was in the clinic for three nights on IV fluids, which is largely all we can do to get the (blood) values back to normal,” said Brown-Bury.

When Stewie’s bloodwork indicated Stage 3 failure on Sunday, she brought him home.

“He’s home with special food, special supplements, and he’ll go back to work with me in a week to see how things are holding.”

Many of Brown-Bury’s cases during the Christmas shift involved cats with urinary issues — in other words, peeing blood.

“Cats are very sensitive to change in stress, so it’s not uncommon over the holidays to have them get inflammation.”

There were also a few injuries, such as a dog that got bitten by another dog, and a cat that fell into something and cut himself — “standard stuff, just a lot of it in one day.”

“Part of the saving grace is that, yes, they were all true emergencies, but they were all emergencies we could deal with. When a dog eats chocolate, we can make him vomit and he’s going to be OK,” she said.

One animal had to be put down, she said, but it would be unrealistic to think others won’t be back for the same reason.

“In veterinarian medicine, we find we don’t see a lot of euthanasia right on Christmas unless they’re very, very sick, of course,” she said. “We do start to see more of it later in the week and in the weeks to come because a lot of people with chronically ill pets are just trying to keep them as comfortable as possible through the holidays and then get ready to say goodbye.”

The Veterinary Specialty Centre has about 50 staff.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, it only offers curbside service, meaning owners have to wait in their cars. It’s safer on clients and staff, and better than maintaining a lineup.

“How do you say to someone who’s watched two other people come into the building, ‘Sorry, we’re full, you can’t come in’?” said Brown-Bury.

The nature of their cases also changed, especially in the early days.

“I do have colleagues that were seeing certainly dogs basically just for exhaustion because now, suddenly, they were going on multiple hour-plus-long walks a day because their owners were stuck at home and bored,” she said in an earlier interview. “And then they’d be like, ‘My dog’s so lethargic.’ And we’re like, ‘Well, how many walks has he had in the last two days? Maybe he just wants a day off.’”

She said clinic owners were worried when businesses were first told to shut down, wondering if they’d be considered essential.

“We never got closed,” she said.

“I do not believe that we’ve ever been specifically mentioned as an essential service, but we were specifically listed as allowed to stay open when the provincial stuff came down.”

As for Stewie, Brown-Bury knows he’s probably not long for this world.

He’s OK for taking pills, and he has a strong appetite — which is why Brown-Bury says she didn’t realize at first that his condition had deteriorated.

“Stewie is really into food … so I didn’t realize his potassium had gotten so low,” she said. “If I can keep him at a level where he’s Stage 3, we could have months with him.”

But reality still looms.

“I don’t want to be at a point where I’m forcing food into him, because no one really wants to live that way.”

— With files from Juanita Mercer

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram