It was Christmas morning. The phone rang at 6.30am. It was the Barrs of Lauder Hill. ‘ Sorry about this, but we’ve a heifer stuck calving’. I was in my car within 10 minutes, and carrying out the Caesarian operation to remove the calf within half an hour.
The Barrs welcomed me into their farmhouse afterwards for a Christmas breakfast. The calf had been a strong, healthy bull calf, and the farmers were delighted with their Christmas present. We were settling down to enjoy the full glory of a Scottish farmhouse breakfast when my bleeper sounded. It was only 8.30 a.m. and already another emergency had to be dealt with – a calf with bloat 15 miles away, at the Buchanans in Melrose. By lunchtime I had seen a horse with colic, six calves with acute pneumonia, a dairy cow with severe mastitis and a dog with a sudden onset choking cough. The afternoon was just as busy, and I was finally able to sit down with the family at seven in the evening. Two hours later there was another call to another difficult calving.
Veterinary surgeons have an obligation to provide a full time emergency service for animals in need of their care, all year round, 24 hours a day. If an animal is in distress, then help is needed – illnesses and accidents do not know that it is Christmas Day. The mixed veterinary practice where I worked in the Scottish Borders was busy – there were six vets. We worked an ‘on-duty’ roster, with duties shared equally between all of the vets, so at least a hectic Christmas day was only experienced once in six years. And the Christmas Day service was certainly not taken for granted by anybody – everybody who telephoned spent as long apologising for disturbing the vet as they did explaining the problem with their animal.
Small animal veterinary practice is less frantic out-of-hours compared to large animal. People tend to stay at home on Christmas Day, so pets are generally safely indoors, curled up by the fireside. There are still unpredictable emergencies – from bitches whelping to dogs having epileptic fits to cats collapsing from kidney failure.
In the past decade, many small animal vets have referred their emergency work to dedicated Emergency Clinics, where vets and nurses are employed specially to work all the time during after-hours periods: their “working day” means night time and bank holidays. If you phone your local vet, you will be given clear advice on the arrangements for emergency service.
Most vet clinics are closed for routine service on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. This year, the fact that Boxing Day is a Saturday means that the bank holiday is taking place on Monday 28th December, so many vets do not start back with routine clinics until Tuesday 29th December. If you aren’t sure whether or not your vet is open, visit their website or Facebook page, or phone the normal clinic number. If you are not transferred directly to the vet on call, there will be an answer machine message giving you details of opening hours.
The first day back after Christmas tends to be a busy time, with a build up of cases that have accumulated over the holiday break. There are some typical seasonal cases that we expect to see at this time of year.
First, there is the ‘turkey tummy syndrome’. People do not like to feel that they are leaving their pets out of the Christmas celebrations. Dogs and cats enjoy eating turkey, and many people make up a Christmas Dinner for their pets, using leftovers from the family celebration. Animals’ stomachs are not well adapted to dealing with a sudden flood of an entirely new foodstuff, and the consequences are often a severe tummy upset soon after Christmas.
Second, there is the ‘Walking It Off’ syndrome. Many people feel an urge to expend some energy after Christmas Day – so what better way to do this than taking the dog for a walk. The result is that hundreds of dogs congregate in popular dog walking areas. Inevitably there are the usual incidents, such as dog fights, dogs lacerated by sharp objects in rivers and animals involved in road accidents.
Public holidays can be busy times for vets. The important message to remember is that if you do have an animal in real distress, your vet is never closed. And if the vet has to do a house call on Christmas or Boxing Day morning, a Christmas breakfast will always be appreciated!
For peace of mind over the holiday period, if you are not sure whether your pet needs a visit to a vet, the Symptom Checker can also help!