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Wednesday, 05 February 2014 00:00

For some pet owners in rural west, round-the-clock vet care out of reach

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By Jake Flannick • SMN Correspondent

Years have passed since Jack McJunkin’s dog was struck and fatally injured by a car on a Swain County road. But memories of the episode linger.

 

It was a Sunday, recalled McJunkin, 68, who is left to wonder whether his miniature poodle might have survived had he not had to wait until Monday to take it to a veterinarian.

“Our local veterinarians take the weekend off,” he said. He has not gotten another dog since.

Emergency veterinary care is in fact available in the far western part of the state, if you have the right relationship with the right vet who is willing to give their home or cell phone number out.

But for pet owners here who, like McJunkin, might not have such ties, the prospect of round-the-clock care for their animals is dim.

“It’s been a problem here for a long time,” McJunkin said. It could be a lifeline for pets who fall ill or sustain injuries.

While there is no shortage of vet offices in the region, few are open on weekends, partly as a result of limited staff.

“We do have to sleep,” said Dana Lee, a veterinary technician and receptionist at the Sylva Animal Hospital, where a total of three veterinarians take turns scheduling appointments for Saturday mornings. The clinic is one of at least two in the region whose hours extend to the weekend, albeit for a brief period. “We’re only able to handle so many clients.”

Offering after-hours pet care takes more than just one vet or two holding office hours.

“You really need more than a couple people,” said Christy McLean, who manages the Animal Hospital of Waynesville. “You need a staff.”

The Waynesville Animal Hospital is one of the few west of Asheville open on Saturday, during morning and afternoon hours. It operates with a handful of veterinarians, three of them full-time, who determine the extent of their availability after-hours on a discretionary basis. It is among others in the region offering walk-in service and extended hours at least one evening per week.

For some pet owners in the region, the nearest source of emergency veterinary care in Asheville might seem out of reach, especially if their pet is in critical condition.

Even so, many here regularly make the trip, said Christy Reeves, operations manager at the Regional Emergency Animal Care Hospital, or REACH, located in Asheville.

Being hit by a car is the leading cause of visits there, given that pets in rural areas are more likely to roam free.

The animal hospital emerged in the late 1990s, after dozens of veterinarians from across the western part of the state formed a group to expand emergency veterinary care here. It has grown to include dozens of workers, including eight veterinarians, offering round-the-clock and specialty care such as surgery.

Officials at REACH are aware of calls to consider building another animal hospital further west, Reeves said. 

“There’s a lot of people, unfortunately, that don’t have a regular vet,”  she said.

Having a regular vet is the first step, but is sometimes one taken too late.

“When they do need something, then it becomes an emergency,” said Ted Rowe, who manages Shearer Pet Health Hospital in Sylva, where his wife is a veterinarian. He noted that he returns to the clinic on Monday sometimes to find voicemail messages left by pet owners who had sought care over the weekend.

It is a precaution pet owners sometimes fail to take even for themselves, with doctors recommending regular medical checkups regardless of apparent health conditions.

“It’s the same thing,” Rowe said of scheduling veterinary checkups for pets, “the patients just have four legs instead of two.”

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