Fayette County

Service provides vets for pets in an emergency

Figuring out what's wrong with an ailing pet often involves the process of elimination, according to Dr. Marlo  Anderson of AA Small  Animal Emergency Services. She recently  examined Sami, a golden retriever with with stomach problems of unknown origin.
Figuring out what's wrong with an ailing pet often involves the process of elimination, according to Dr. Marlo Anderson of AA Small Animal Emergency Services. She recently examined Sami, a golden retriever with with stomach problems of unknown origin. Angela Baldridge

Dr. Marlo Anderson had already worked on a rather angry cat with heart failure, a puppy having an allergic reaction to a vaccination and a 67-pound beagle with bladder stones.

And then came the 9:15 p.m. call from a frantic owner whose pit bull kept falling over, unable to stand up.

"Doesn't sound good," remarked Anderson, a veterinarian board-certified in emergency and critical care.

When the dog arrived that evening, veterinary technician Elizabeth Yates rushed him to the stainless steel exam table at the back of the clinic, where Anderson listened for a heartbeat or breathing.

Nothing. It was too late for CPR.

Yates stroked the lifeless dog's short tan fur.

A few moments later, she pressed his front paw into a black ink pad, making a careful paw print on a sympathy card that would be mailed to the dog's owner.

"At least they get something," she said.

It's all in a night's work at AA Small Animal Emergency Service, on Dennis Drive in Lexington. It's the only clinic in Lexington that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including holidays.

"You never know what's going to walk in the door next," Anderson said. "Anything from a bleeding toenail to a dog that's been chewed apart by another dog."

Around this time of year, when people are busy with get-togethers, the clinic gets more cases of dogs that have been sickened from eating people food that can be toxic to them, such as chocolate, grapes, even the fat from the holiday turkey, which can cause pancreatitis, said Stacie Harmon, who coordinates the blood bank housed at the clinic.

In the spring, there's typically an increase of animals being hit by cars.

Preserving a bond

The clinic, which treats only cats and dogs, was started in 1980 by a group of Lexington veterinarians who decided to take turns working nights and weekends to serve patients after regular business hours.

"The vets got together to give each other some time off," said Harmon, who has been with the clinic almost from the beginning. "We started out in this little bitty hole in the wall."

Some of the founding members have retired from practice since then, but the service has taken on a life of its own.

Last year, the clinic, which now employs a staff of 25, moved to a larger location, at 150 Dennis Drive.

The clinic now provides services such as CT scans and the blood bank, and veterinarians specializing in ophthalmology and dermatology come from Louisville each month to see patients.

In May, the clinic added daytime hours, which is more convenient for busy pet owners and allows critically ill patients to avoid having to be moved to their regular vet's office, said Dr. Stephen Pinkston, who practices at Lansdowne Veterinary Clinic, serves as the administrator for AA Small Animal Emergency Service and is one of the 30 veterinarians who are partners in it.

"It's given more options to the client and the referring veterinarian," he said.

On weekends, he said, it is not uncommon for the clinic to get patients from as far away as Morehead.

In the past, he said, the clinic drew patients from near the Kentucky-Tennessee line, but an emergency clinic has opened in Richmond in recent years, so some of the southern Kentucky patients who once would have traveled to Lexington now go there.

While the clinic has grown and evolved during the past 30 years, Pinkston said its mission of serving sick animals when their regular veterinarian isn't available hasn't changed.

And as people have begun to place more emotional value on their pets, they have begun to seek improved treatments for them.

"We're really just respecting and keeping up our end of ... the family-pet bond," Pinkston said.

'I'll be here all night'

Ricardo Angolano, the owner of the unhappy black and white cat Anderson was treating that recent fall night, said he had found the cat, BiBi, under the bed late in the afternoon and decided to bring it to the hospital because it was clearly in distress.

"He knows words" like eat, brush and play, Angolano said. When BiBi didn't respond to them, Angolano said he put out fresh food.

"I even put it under the bed for him to smell, and no movement," he said in a telephone interview. (He had called the staff back to ask whether BiBi's ailment could have been brought on when it heard a kitten meowing outside his home's window.) "I finally got him out from under the bed. He was gagging and trying to catch air."

With the help of several staff members, Anderson took X-rays of BiBi and confirmed heart failure as the cause of the ailment.

But when Anderson tried to do an electrocardiogram on the growling cat to get more information, he balked, eventually throwing himself onto the floor.

BiBi made it through the evening, though, and was released back to Angolano in the morning.

There's an ebb and flow to the work of the clinic.

In the quiet moments, staff grab a bite to eat or enjoy the company of their own pets, who often come to work with them on the overnight shifts.

On a recent night, Yates finally gave in to the high-pitched squeals coming from the library and released Payton, her 7-pound, 6-month-old micro pig, and Bailey, her Australian shepherd.

While Bailey ate a can of dog food, Payton careened around the exam area, approaching each staff member periodically with a grunt to ask whether each had a treat for him.

Anderson said much of the time, her work involves figuring out what's ailing a pet using the process of elimination.

In the case of Sami, a sad-eyed golden retriever who had vomited and then refused to eat or drink all day, that meant calling the owner and asking a series of questions: Had Sami had diarrhea? Does she chew on things? Could she have found something in the yard that she shouldn't have eaten? Could she have gotten into the owner's medicine? What about grapes or other toxic people foods? When the questions turned up negative answers, Anderson recommended a series of X-rays, and blood work if the X-rays didn't provide answers.

"A lot of these are just a step-by-step trying to figure out what the problem is," she said.

Yates and fellow vet tech Kelly Stephens positioned Sami on the X-ray table while Anderson looked at digital images that appeared instantly on a computer monitor.

In the end, the X-rays didn't show anything. The staff drew blood and provided watchful care over Sami through the night. She was released to be seen again by her regular veterinarian the next day, Harmon said.

In the case of Aerial, a 12-week-old chocolate Lab puppy, the sleuthing wasn't necessary.

Her owner, Mark Harvey, had given her a parvo vaccine, which caused her lips to swell in an allergic reaction.

"Her lips looked like they were ready to burst," he said. He gave the pup Benadryl and rushed her to the clinic.

Anderson said such a reaction is "probably one of the most common sets of emergencies that we see."

She had Stephens administer a steroid shot and told the owners to watch for signs of difficulty breathing.

"If anything changes," Stephens said, "I'll be here all night."