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A Day In the Life of an Emergency Veterinarian

By: Dr. Amy Wolff

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Emergency veterinarians are a special group of people. Dedicated to helping injured and ill animals, their workday can be exciting, thrilling, depressing and sometimes routine. Shifts often last for 12 to 14 hours. Nights, weekends and holidays are all part of the job. This story outlines a typical Sunday workday at a busy emergency veterinary hospital.

7:50 a.m.

As I pull into the parking lot I can see that the hospital is busy this Sunday morning. There are a lot of cars parked by the clinic so I am anxious to see what this day will bring. You never know what surprises are in store for the next 12 hours.

The hospital contains the patients that have already been admitted. At a glance I can see that we have a return visitor. "Dinky" is a small longhaired Dachshund that spends the better part of his days rooting in the closets, trash and kitchen to see what he can eat. What he can't eat, he tears up. He was here a little while ago for eating a whole pan of brownies. Apparently unaffected by that incident, he is back. I can see his hair coat looks strange and choppy. He seems anxious and disoriented. His medical record clears the mystery. This time, it's a three-stage event. Dinky first raided his owner's purse and chewed two large packs of gum, which he later tangled into his long beautiful hair. Then he wrestled open a bag of microwave popcorn (extra butter) and got the popcorn kernels stuck in the gum. Lastly, and of greatest concern, he consumed a whole bag of menthol cough drops, and the menthol has caused some brain swelling and secondary blindness. He is being treated with drugs designed to decrease the swelling but it is still too early to see any improvement.

8:00 to 8:30 a.m.

Case transfers. The night doctor describes in detail the condition of the patients in the hospital and what medicines, treatments or diagnostics are scheduled for today. As usual, there are a few dogs being treated for vomiting and diarrhea (our most frequent complaint), a cat being treated for a urinary obstruction, and a new mother Boston terrier nursing a puppy delivered by C-section.


We begin to see patients. We practice on a triage basis, meaning we see the patients with the most serious needs first. In an emergency hospital, the order of patients can change in a moment. First up is "Fileo," a goldfish who has a marble stuck in his mouth. Fileo has grown a lot since his fish bowl days and his mouth has become large enough to accommodate the marbles his owner uses on the bottom of the fish bowl. Fileo can breath but does not look happy. We catch him quickly in a net, apply a little lubricant and gentle pressure, and thankfully the marble comes out. Fileo immediately returns to the bowl and appears unaffected. We are happy to start our day with this simple success.

The exam rooms are full and we do our best to see each pet in a timely manner. Vomiting, diarrhea, straining to urinate, not eating and lameness are common in cats and dogs, and we treat these problems every day. Wounds are cleaned and sutured, broken toenails trimmed and fishhooks are removed.

11:30 a.m.

The pace quickens and priorities rearrange when two traumas and a critical case arrive. "Gent" is a 9-year-old German shepherd that has collapsed at home and is having labored breathing. His abdomen is distended and his gum color is pale. We suspect he has an abdominal hemorrhage from a ruptured abdominal tumor.

"Scooter" is a 2-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever who was out joyriding with his owner when their truck stalled on a highway overpass and the engine burst into flames. Scooter and his owner got out, but frightened and disoriented, he jumped onto the highway below and has broken both his front legs. Unbelievably, he is walking and giving everyone kisses. We love him instantly.

Add to the list "Miss Dottie," a 2-year-old Dalmatian that has been seizing for the last 20 minutes without stopping.

"Gent" goes directly to radiology for X-rays, Scooter gets pain meds, Miss Dottie gets an intravenous catheter and some anticonvulsants to stop her seizures.

Gent is now our greatest concern. X-rays reveal that he has a life threatening abdominal hemorrhage from a tumor on his spleen that has ruptured. He requires immediate surgery. While he is being prepped, we sedate Scooter and stabilize his fractures. He will need surgery to repair the bones but we can put him in temporary splints to reduce the movement and keep him comfortable on pain medications. He is still kissing everyone while his casts go on – even dopey on pain meds.

Miss Dottie has stopped seizing but is disoriented. We will keep her 24 hours to monitor and watch for any signs of seizure.

12:30 p.m.

Gent is in the OR and ready to go. Fluids, heat support and monitors are all in place. A blood transfusion is going as he has lost a lot of blood. His owners wait anxiously.

2:00 p.m.

Gent comes out of the OR and into recovery. His spleen, containing a sizeable tumor, was removed. He is weak but we expect him to recover. His red blood cell count will be monitored every 4 hours. His owners visit and give him love and encouragement and he wags his tail for them.

Cases continue through the afternoon and into the early evening. It is so satisfying to be able to diagnose and treat problems so pets and owners feel better. But the last case of the day will stump us, at least for a while.

"Bumper" is a 2-year-old shih tzu that has not felt good for a few days. His concerned owner reports that he has been lethargic, not eating, vomiting and having diarrhea. Bumper is pale, weak and lying on his side. He has abdominal pain. His owner knows of nothing that he's gotten into. She claims to watch him closely and feels certain that she would know if he had gotten into anything. In an attempt to home medicate him, Bumper's owner has been giving him generous amounts of Pepto-Bismol. Blood work is taken but is not very revealing. Initial X-rays are unproductive since the Pepto-Bismol contains bismuth, a metallic substance that interferes with interpretation. We start IV fluids and pain meds and schedule a recheck X-ray in 2 hours to give the Pepto-Bismol some time to clear.

6:00 p.m.

Gent is recovering nicely and can sit up. Miss Dottie, now clear-headed, is expressing her extreme displeasure about being detained and is barking up a storm. And little Dinky looks improved; he ate his dinner and then chewed the bowl for entertainment.

And how about Bumper? Recheck X-rays showed a metal foreign body in his stomach. An endoscope was used and we retrieved a lead sinker from a fishing lure. Bumper was diagnosed with lead poisoning. Appropriate treatments are started and he will recover. His owner stares at the sinker in disbelief.

I go home at around 8:30 p.m. Another interesting day at the emergency clinic. I will rest up tonight and be ready to start all over again tomorrow.

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