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ERIE, Pa. (AP) — Bill and Margie Conover, of Waterford, were at the Northwest PA Pet Emergency Center on Thursday night with their dog, Taco Bell.
The 10-year-old longhair Chihuahua had fallen off a backyard ramp and dislocated a hip about 7:30 p.m.
"It's always at night or on a weekend, believe me, when this happens," Margie Conover said, of the medical emergencies they've gone through with their animals. "It's never when our regular vet is open."
The Pet Emergency Center, at 429 W. 38th St., in the east end of the JMC Ice Arena, is an after-hours veterinary emergency hospital.
"It's the first place we call when everything else is closed," Margie Conover said. "We couldn't wait until morning. (Taco Bell) was in pain."
Veterinarian Jamie Araki gave Taco Bell a shot for the pain and gave the Conovers pain pills to keep the dog comfortable until they could get him to their regular veterinarian, at Cambro Veterinary Hospital in Edinboro, the next morning.
"I don't know what we would do without them," Margie Conover said of the emergency hospital. "It's just really good that they're there."
Being there is the point, said veterinarian Brian Christman, who went to work at the Pet Emergency Center in 2004 and bought the center in 2006. Veterinarians are on duty from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. on weeknights, weekends from 2 p.m. Saturday to 8 a.m. Monday, and 24 hours on Christmas and other major holidays. The center will open at 2 p.m. on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, when other veterinary practices often close early.
Pet owners bring pets from as far as Titusville and Ashtabula, Ohio, for care.
"We're here for the things that happen when your vet's office isn't open," Christman said.
Things that happen after hours this week may include pets eating tinsel or assorted chocolates, swallowing ornaments, slurping eggnog, or gnawing on light cords.
And pets brought together for the holidays don't always make merry.
"We see dogs that have been in fights at Christmas," Pet Emergency Center veterinarian Jamie Araki said, when visiting family members bring along dogs that don't get along with the host's.
Human visitors also can be a shock to a pet's system.
"New people coming into the house can overstress an animal and cause (anxiety and digestive) problems," Araki said.
The cost of emergency veterinary care, especially after hours, can cause owners anxiety. Veterinarians well qualified for emergency care and willing to work nights, weekends and holidays to provide it come at a premium. And emergency care, like emergency care for people, is costlier than routine or preventive care.
The cost for the initial exam, or to be seen by a veterinarian, is $97 at the Pet Emergency Center, or about twice the cost charged by other vets, Christman said. "From there, probably a lot of the diagnostics are somewhat similar in cost. Where the sticker shock comes in is that folks are bringing their pets to us with significant medical problems, when they're used to going to their vet for routine things like vaccinations and checkups and the total bill isn't huge. More significant problems equate to needing more diagnostics and treatment, and those bills can get very pricey very quickly a lot of times."
Veterinary care in general isn't cheap. Americans will spend an estimated $15.73 billion on veterinary care in 2015, up from $15.04 billion in 2014, according to the American Pet Products Association, representing pet industry manufacturers.
Ways to avoid emergency veterinary costs include providing less expensive preventive care, including vaccinations against disease often available at lower-cost clinics, such as the A.N.N.A. Wellness Centers in Erie and Corry. Dog- and cat-proofing the house can also prevent pet emergencies, Christman said.
"It's like kid-proofing the house; you have to think about that with pets. If you have a 10-year-old Lab that lays by the fireplace and doesn't get too excited about things, you don't think about that. But if you bring a puppy into the house or a younger dog comes to visit and gets into stuff, that's a different situation," Christman said.
Putting money aside regularly, in pet savings accounts or for pet insurance, can cover the costs of emergency care. Other pet owners opt for care credit, essentially a pet credit card.
"It's good for anyone who's got a pet to think that, at some point over the life of that pet, it's probably going to have an illness or injury that you didn't expect. It's good to think about that in advance and have some idea of how to address that so that you have money stashed away if the pet needs it," Christman said.
With care credit, realize that you will pay back any money spent, with interest. When choosing insurance, read the small print and know what is covered and isn't, Christman said.
Pet insurance, according to a 2011 Consumer Reports study, generally costs more than it paid for. The study concluded that only for very expensive care, such as cancer care, would coverage more than pay for itself.
Araki studied veterinary medicine at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where pet insurance nevertheless is almost universal.
"They ask, 'Is this covered by insurance,' say, 'OK, let's go ahead,' and swipe their cards. Everyone in the UK seems to have insurance. Here, I haven't seen that. People bring in a dog that's vomiting and say, 'I have this much money; what's the best diagnostic you can do and the best care we can get for that.'"
Advice on how to help an ailing or injured pet is often free. In addition to seeing some 3,500 pets, including rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs and even rats each year, the Pet Emergency Center fields 400 to 500 calls each week, many of them inquiries about what to do when the dog's swallowed a sock or the cat ate part of an extremely toxic lily.
"We can't diagnose a problem on the phone, but we can help people deal with more minor events, recommend that they see their veterinarian the next day or that they bring the pet in right away," Christman said.
Margie Conover is willing to pay the price for emergency care that couldn't be prevented.
"It isn't cheap, but I pay it because I love my animals," she said. "They're our babies. They're our whole life right now. And when you love something, you do your best to take care of it."
5 Ways To Safeguard Pets
Brian Christman, veterinarian and owner of the Northwest PA Pet Emergency Center in Erie, recommends things what pet owners can do to avoid veterinary emergencies this holiday season:
1. Remember that people food is for people. Don't feed chocolates, turkey, ham or game bones to pets or leave them where pets can get at them.
2. Keep poinsettias and other plants out of reach.
3. Take the tinsel and garland off the tree. Tinsel in particular can be deadly for cats that swallow it.
4. Tuck electrical cords away, especially from young dogs that like to chew.
5. Don't leave eggnog, wine or champagne where Fido might try a taste.
Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com
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