What do you do if your animal becomes seriously ill? Call your vet.

What if it’s late at night, or a bank holiday – or even Christmas Day?

Same again – call one of us.


It’s a legal requirement that all veterinary practices in the UK arrange for what is called “Out of hours”, or OOH, cover. This means that, at any hour of the day or night, there will be a vet and a veterinary nurse on call to deal with any emergencies.


Different practices arrange their “out of hours” cover in different ways.

Traditionally, the vets and nurses in a practice take it in turns to be “on call”, and they will have a rota to make sure no-one does more than their fair share of “bad” days – Christmas, New Year and so on. The advantage of this is that the animal owner in an emergency sees a vet they probably know and trust, and who knows their animal. However, it’s wearing on staff, and as a result, it’s nowadays only common in more isolated or rural small animal practices – although it’s still the norm for farm animal and equine vets. There does seem to be something about Christmas Eve and emergency calvings, for some reason!

Most small animal practices in towns or cities (and many small equine or farm practices) now either club together with their neighbours to “share the load”, so their staff only work perhaps a one in eight or one in ten. More often, though, they will contract with a specialist out of hours provider, who will cover all emergencies outside of normal working hours for a group of local practices. The vets and nurses will have additional experience, and often qualifications, in emergency and critical care, and as they’re only working the night or holiday shift, they won’t already be tired when they come on duty.

However it’s organised, there will always be someone to look after your animals.


It’s a strange feeling, being on call over a holiday.

The on call vet may not even have to be in the practice all the time – but I always find it really offputting to be at home, constantly watching the phone to make sure I haven’t missed a call!

Generally, Christmas out of hours calls fall into one of three categories:

Random non-veterinary calls

(With the emphasis on random). This might include people who’ve got the wrong number, prank callers, or people who ring up to ask who’s on call and then put the phone down (which is both annoying and depressing). It’s also amazing how many people choose the middle of the night (often, strangely, at pub closing time) to phone the out of hours vet to wish them Merry Christmas or Happy New Year. While I appreciate the sentiment, it really isn’t helpful!

Minor issues

Typically “when do you open tomorrow”. However, I’ve had requests for wormers, paperwork, or for a repeat prescription that wasn’t about to run out. This is as well as people trying to book in vaccinations, routine ops, and even a dog which has been itching for six months (at 3am – why?). In a personal plea, PLEASE if you want to know these things, call when we’re open! There’s a good chance I’ve just got back to sleep after a genuine call when the awful bleep of the on-call phone goes again…

Real cases that need seeing

Whenever the phone rings, your heart rate jumps a bit. Normally, it drops off when you realise it’s a minor issue or something that will wait until the practice opens again. However, the reason we’re there is for the real emergencies (or at least, situations where you can’t rule out an emergency over the phone).


So, what are the most common genuine Christmas calls?

Well, in small animal practice it’s got to be suspected poisoning (usually dogs who’ve gobbled down a whole box of Aunt Mabel’s chocolates), followed by vomiting (usually a result of excessive consumption of treats or snacks!). In most cases, we can see them, treat them and send them home, but occasionally we do need to do more tests or admit the patient overnight (that’s when I ring my long-suffering duty nurse!).

Sadly, road traffic accidents are also common at this time of year (dark dog or cat on a dark road at night isn’t a good combination); and there’s always a trickle of difficult whelpings, dogs with bloat, and cats with cystitis.


What happens next?

If it’s a genuine case (i.e. your pet is unwell or injured) most vets will be willing see you, if that’s what you want. However, if it’s something you can take care of at home, I’m often happy to give advice and have you call me back if it isn’t working. Deciding over the phone what needs to be seen and what doesn’t is always tricky, so personally I’ve always tended to err on the side of caution – not because I want to run your bill up, but because I really don’t want to miss anything!

However, if you’re genuinely not sure, try out our Symptom Checker. It’s designed to tell you if you can care for your pet at home, if they need to be seen when we open, or if you need to call right now! I encourage you to use it, to save your purse and my sleep!


However, if your pet is ill or injured, or even if you’re just not happy with something, there will always be a vet there to help.


Wishing you and all your pets a Merry, Peaceful and Healthy Christmas!