The association that represents veterinarians in Newfoundland and Labrador wants pet owners to better understand the rules about veterinary care, including the fact that veterinarians are obliged to provide emergency care only to their own clients.
The issue of emergency after-hours care for animals has come to the forefront after the death in late September of a dog in Corner Brook who became sick on a weekend and whose owner was told there was no veterinarian who would examine or treat the animal.
When she called a veterinary triage phone line for help, Nicole Marsden said she was told that the veterinary clinic on call would not see her dog, Xander, because he had previously been seen by a different clinic instead.
The Newfoundland and Labrador College of Veterinarians is investigating a complaint from Marsden.
After declining a request from CBC for a comment last week, citing the ongoing investigation, Dr. Maggie Brown-Bury, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Veterinary Medical Association, agreed to speak generally about veterinary rules in the province.
"A clinic is not obligated to take on new clients," said Brown-Bury in an interview with CBC Radio's Newfoundland Morning.
"Whether that's an emergency time or during the day, it is completely the prerogative of the individual clinic whether or not they're open to new clients, the same way that your family doctor may not be open to new patients."
Clinics are supposed to provide emergency services for their own clients, said Brown-Bury, and arrangements to have clinics cover for one another must be made ahead of time.
"The onus is on them to be on call, to be available outside of regular business hours," she said.
Brown-Bury said the rules that apply to veterinarians are outlined in the Veterinary Medical Act, which is provincial legislation, as well as in the bylaws and code of ethics of the NL College of Veterinarians.
Duty of care
Brown-Bury acknowledged that many people have the idea that veterinarians have an obligation to ensure no animal is in distress.
She said it's true that veterinarians would feel an ethical responsibility to minimize suffering, but she said there are limits on what is reasonable to expect.
"If the animal is in front of us, we are not going to let it suffer," said Brown-Bury.
But she said an expectation of around-the-clock care from any veterinarian is unrealistic.
"I've seen comments like, 'It is the responsibility of the veterinarian to ensure all animals have care.' That's a large statement to make, when you think about the number of people that have pets and the potential emotional toll that it would take to have someone expect that they can help and fix everything," she said.
As it is, Brown-Bury said, veterinarians work in a demanding, high-stress environment, and she said the suicide rate among her colleagues is a serious concern.
She worries about veterinarians who are criticized publicly on social media, and the impact it has on their mental well-being and their ability to serve their clients.
The challenge, she said, is that if veterinarians leave the profession, there won't always be someone to take their place, especially in less-populated centres.
She understands that people are emotional about the animals who are members of their families, but she urges people to show compassion for veterinarians whose work is also emotionally taxing.
"For the veterinarian, they have their hundreds of clients. For the client, they have just their one pet and their one vet. They don't see necessarily the larger picture," said Brown-Bury.
In areas where there are several veterinarians, Brown-Bury said they do sometimes team up to provide on-call service, with vets taking turns responding to emergencies, but there is no obligation to take part in such a system.
She said people need to consider what it would mean for a veterinarian's daytime practice, if they were on call all the time.
"It only takes a couple of calls in the night to mean … you don't get your full night's sleep, and then you do it all again the next day," explained Brown-Bury.
"That's not a lifestyle that's very sustainable for a lot of people."
As a result, Brown-Bury said it is challenging to recruit new veterinarians to more remote areas of the province.
"It's difficult for us to hire in rural Newfoundland, where the expectation might be that you're on call seven days a week," she said.
What to do with a sick dog or cat
The only location in Newfoundland and Labrador that offers 24-7 veterinary care is Veterinary Specialty Centre, the clinic in Mount Pearl where Brown-Bury works.
In the absence of such a service, pet owners elsewhere in the province may wonder what they're supposed to do if their dog or cat needs emergency care after regular business hours.
Brown-Bury recommends pet owners have a conversation with their veterinarian before an emergency occurs, so that they're aware of what the process will be for accessing after-hours care. Essentially, she said, don't wait to find out what you'll need to know in the middle of your pet's health crisis.
"That is something as a pet owner that you should maybe know ahead of time," said Brown-Bury.
"When you get your puppy or your kitten or adopt your adult pet, kind of have an awareness of what is going to be my option out of hours."
The NL College of Veterinarians has declined to comment on its investigation.
On Thursday, it updated the main page of its website with the following statement: "The Newfoundland and Labrador College of Veterinarians (College) are aware of a recent incident in Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador, which has raised questions regarding the provision of emergency veterinary services in this province. As an investigation is ongoing into that specific situation, details cannot be shared at this time."