Wendy’s loss has been particularly difficult for several reasons, one of which was a Sunday visit to an emergency vet clinic. I’d taken pets to this clinic before (this was the same place I took Jade after finding her run over by a truck in a parking lot) and, while nothing is the same as taking pets to your own vet, this place was ok. Not this time. I later learned the clinic been recently bought out by a corporation. All I knew at the time of my visit was that the vet, whom I’d never met before, appeared to be entirely focused on profit.
For starters, the vet had an estimate prepared before she ever saw my dog. This is not me making an assumption – she flat out told me she had put together an estimate “based upon what we usually do for renal dogs”. While I understand that treatments may be similar for dogs suffering from kidney failure, I would think there would be significant variations depending upon what stage the patient is in (Wendy was diagnosed as “very early stage” just 3 months prior), what the current blood work shows and other factors which can’t possibly be determined before examining the dog.
Things went downhill from there. Way. The very first words out of the vet’s mouth when she walked in the room were, “So she’s been sick for 5 days already.” I was shocked but managed to explain that no, she was an old dog who had gone off her food for a day, then seemed to rally back and feel much better, then had some vomiting, not eating – off and on, back and forth like this for the past 5 days until finally that Sunday, I considered the situation to be serious enough to warrant a check at the emergency clinic. She saw Wendy’s tongue protruding and “joked” that she was expressing her opinion. The whole visit was awful and I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of this vet treating my beloved pet. At one point, I pulled the young man who was assisting aside and asked him if this vet was ok, because what the hell, and he replied, “If it’s any consolation, I get that A LOT.”
It was no consolation. The estimate, even if I had felt comfortable leaving Wendy there, was well beyond my means. I explained that I had financial limitations, did not want to hospitalize Wendy, and that I had an appointment with my regular vet the morning after Labor Day and would just like to help Wendy feel better until then. The vet was clearly unhappy about this and said several things which did not make sense to me at the time:
- “You’re going to have to bring her back. We’ll be open tomorrow.”
- “Her blood levels indicate to me that sub-Q fluids won’t help her.”
- “Here are two supplements that helped a renal dog I know who was on his way to be euthanized when the owner started these supplements and he lived for another 3 months. They are $50 each.”
I could not process this information. Wendy had gone from very early stage kidney failure to so far gone that sub-Q fluids were useless in 3 months? But I should buy $100 worth of supplements for a dog who wasn’t eating? Why would I bring her back to this place when I’ve already said I didn’t want to hospitalize? None of this was making sense to me. I paid my $350 bill for the blood work, injections and sub-Q fluids, took my pet and left.
I brought Wendy to my regular vet when they reopened on Tuesday morning after the holiday and she immediately noticed Wendy’s protruding tongue was ulcerated. I thought it was just dried out. She explained that in some patients with renal failure, the ulcers extend from the tongue, down the esophagus and through the digestive tract. This explained why Wendy would sometimes seem to want to eat but then the food would just fall out of her mouth as if she was experiencing pain upon swallowing. All the emergency vet had said about her tongue was a snide remark, which was not helpful.
After looking at Wendy and reviewing the blood work from the emergency clinic, my vet gave me the information I needed to make an informed decision: “I don’t want to give you false hope. I can’t fix her. I’m willing to try to help her feel better if that’s what you want me to do but even if we can accomplish that without her succumbing to the inherent risks, she will likely relapse in 48 hours and she still won’t be able to eat due to the ulceration of the tongue and esophagus.”
These words I understood. I believed as I held Wendy in my lap that she was suffering. Billy agreed. There was no hope for recovery. It might be possible to extend her life but that would merely extend her suffering for all intents and purposes. We did not want that. We decided to let her go.
Which is the decision I would have made that Sunday at the emergency clinic had the vet there told me these things. But I guess that wouldn’t have been as profitable for them.
It was my regular vet who told me about the emergency clinic having been bought by a chain. She added that unfortunately, the other emergency clinic she has worked with has also been bought out. Apparently this is the future of emergency veterinary medicine. And it’s a shame.
When a vet hands you a four figure estimate for hospitalization, there comes with it an expectation of hope. That’s what they are selling pet owners: hope. In Wendy’s case, it was fake. I was too scattered to ask the question, “What is the prognosis with and without hospitalization?” Emergency vets have to know that pet owners who come to them are seeking guidance. Instead of preying on our inability to fully process information during a crisis, emergency vets need to support clients by providing information specific to the individual pet’s circumstances in clear terms which allow owners to make informed decisions. The onus should not be on distraught owners to ask the right questions but rather on the vet being paid for an educated opinion to offer realistic information.
In talking to reader Brie Kavanaugh, I found out she too had been through a terrible experience at the end of a dog’s life recently. I asked her to share her story here, in hopes of helping to increase awareness about these types of events:
On July 3rd at about 8:00 p.m., our 16-year old dog had a grand mal seizure. It was terrifying. He had been sleeping near my chair at my feet when he started to convulse. My husband leapt into action to hold Asp still while I began to pray for the soul or our boy, hoping the seizure would not last. He howled. It was over in less than three minutes. We called our vet of 20 years for help. She could not help us and told us to go to the emergency veterinary clinic in Huntsville. We did, having no idea that our lives were about to be forever changed by a business devoid of compassion, sympathy or empathy.
When we arrived at the ER clinic not quite 40 minutes later, the door was locked. We were only allowed to bring our dog inside after having paid a $100 treatment fee to an angry, curt receptionist. We were put into an exam room and stayed there for 2 1/2 hours with no communication and no way to keep our dog comfortable. He would have been better off in our truck until they could see him. When my husband asked the receptionist how much longer the wait would be, we were told people had been waiting longer than us. We were ultimately seen by a veterinarian who ordered tests, told us to wait in the lobby and then told us about 20 minutes later, in that same lobby, that our dog had cancer while trying to show us ultrasound images on his phone. As we struggled to process the information, we were given a prescription for Aspy and told to observe him for 24 hours.
He didn’t make it that long. He had another seizure the following afternoon at about 2:00 p.m. that seemed to last an eternity but really lasted about 40 minutes. I honestly thought he would die on the rug in our living room from the seizure itself. It went on and on as he lost control of his bowels and howled.We tried to reach our veterinarian and could not so we took Aspy, still seizing, back to the same emergency clinic to have him euthanized. He stopped seizing during the drive, but we knew we could not keep him. We were put in a room, told to sign forms and told our dog had to be taken from us to have the IV line put it. We begged for the vet tech to just do it with us present to keep our dog calm. She would not and insisted he had to be taken to another room. He was gone for more than 15 minutes as we heard him barking for us in his confusion and as we anguished over what was happening. When Aspy was finally returned to us, the vet tech told us that he “would not hold still” for her, as if she was speaking about a fully functioning dog. We were incredulous. A veterinarian entered the room to euthanize our dog and it was over in less than a minute. No real chance to say goodbye. No real chance to center ourselves. We were in shock.
We wrote a 3 page complaint letter to the Animal Emergency Clinic of North Alabama about our experiences there. No one could save our dog. But the manner in which we were treated during both of our visits turned a heart breaking loss into a traumatic experience we will never forget. It never even occurred to us to try to find another place to go; we felt we had no other choice.
Those who own, oversee and work in emergency clinics simply cannot think and function like other service industries. I have had better and more compassionate service from the Express Lube where I take my car. And I will never ever go back to that place again. We sought help in what turned out to be the worst 19 hours of our 16 year relationship with our dog and those from who we sought help failed us. And for that, they should be ashamed.
Thank you Brie for sharing your story. I know how difficult it is.
Anyone who wants to share their own experiences at emergency clinics, good or bad, is welcome to post in the comments – as is anyone who has suggestions on what to do when you have a need for emergency vet services on weekends/holidays but don’t trust your area clinics.