Heat emergency with your pet? Don't be surprised if your ER visit requires a drive

Dr. Nelson and Butters the dog
Posted at 8:38 AM, Jul 21, 2022

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - With temperatures as hot as they are, veterinarians say it's important to keep your pets inside to avoid heat stroke and other emergencies.

"Recently, we actually saved a police dog. He was working outside and his temperature went up to 107 degrees and we were very lucky...they brought him in immediately," said Dr. Julie Nelson, an emergency veterinarian at Bay Beach Veterinary Emergency Hospital in Virginia Beach.

The dog and its handler were also lucky because they were able to find a clinic to take the case.

Bay Beach's schedule for emergency doctors currently has numerous openings, particularly during overnight shifts — No doctor on staff means pets could be turned away. It nearly happened on Monday of this week, the clinic tells News 3.

“We did not have an emergency doctor overnight and most of the veterinary emergency hospitals in our community did not have emergency doctors overnight either so we did not have anywhere to send the patient. We did end up getting him taken care of, but, at the same time, it’s a really tough situation for people to be in," said Allison Rye, the Hospital Administrator at Bay Beach.

According to Blue Pearl — an emergency veterinary hospital that operates across the country, with two locations in Hampton Roads — the problem is nationwide due to a shortage of veterinarians and support staff.

A statement to News 3, from company spokesperson Laura Fourniotis, reads, "Over the past decade, there has been an increased generational interest in pet ownership, which was accelerated by a historic influx of ‘pandemic pets.’ Adding to this, the industry is facing a national veterinary professional shortage. COVID-19 only exacerbated pre-existing issues in veterinary medicine, including burnout. Loss of qualified/experienced para-staff, clinicians, and leadership is notable across all aspects of the veterinary business. However, emergency and critical care medicine has seen the greatest attrition or movement of Associates. Many determined to ‘take a break,’ to move to another role or another team/practice, or to leave the profession altogether. This trend is not yet slowing in 2022."

Fourniotis pointed News 3 to a study by Mars Veterinary Health that breaks down the numbers.

Rye says the staffing situation at Bay Beach and across the region is the worst she's seen since joining the clinic as a veterinary assistant in 2001.

"I think we had five or six 24-hour facilities locally. Now we have two," she said. "We do our best to cover the holes (in our schedule) that we can, but our doctors can only work so many hours in a week."

If the hospital is unable to take on a new patient, Dr. Nelson says her staff may refer the owner to another clinic outside the region.

“It hurts us immensely to have to send them somewhere else, like all the way to Richmond. That is a two-hour drive to do in the middle of the night when their pet is having an emergency but when you don’t have the doctor to take care of them, we have to do what’s best for them," she told News 3.

But sometimes even those locations are already full too.

Dr. Nelson says the best thing for someone having an emergency with their dog, cat or another pet is to call ahead to make sure a hospital is accepting patients to avoid a wasted trip.

Also, if you think your pet might be sick, try to get in to see your regular veterinarian before it becomes an emergency.

And keep in mind if you do have to visit the ER, be patient and prepared to wait several hours in the event the doctor is working on another, higher priority case.