The fight for after hours veterinary care in Alberni

Alberni resident Mel Dunlop holds a picture of Bella, which died after a trip to the Nanaimo Emergency Veterinary Hospital after complications from a spay surgery. The death could have been prevented if there was after-hours veterinary services in Port Alberni, Dunlop said. - WAWMEESH G. HAMILTON/Alberni Valley News
Alberni resident Mel Dunlop holds a picture of Bella, which died after a trip to the Nanaimo Emergency Veterinary Hospital after complications from a spay surgery. The death could have been prevented if there was after-hours veterinary services in Port Alberni, Dunlop said.
— image credit: WAWMEESH G. HAMILTON/Alberni Valley News

Port Alberni resident Mel Dunlop remembers Sept. 10 clearly. It was 30 degrees outside, the last of the summer heat leaving the Valley. The fall fair had just left town and school was back.

But her idyllic day was broken that evening when her daughter’s family dog suffered complications from spay surgery.

Her daughter rushed her to a local veterinary clinic but it was closed. She was advised to bring the dog to the Central Island Veterinary Emergency Hospital in Nanaimo.

Despite animal doctors best efforts there though nothing could be done, and the dog was euthanized.

“She could have been treated here or at least patched up so she could have survived the trip to Nanaimo,” Dunlop said.

“But she wasn’t treated here. It would have been more humane to put her down rather than suffer that trip.”

When she made further inquiries, Dunlop found that after-hours veterinary care isn’t available to pet owners in Port Alberni, something she felt would have saved her daughter’s dog.

The tragic incident has spurred Dunlop to activism.

Dunlop is clear that she has no quarrel with Valley veterinarians or the quality of care they provide, she said. Her issue is the unavailability of care after hours, she added.

According to Dunlop no veterinary facility in Port Alberni is open after hours, something she finds frustrating.

“What do they think, that animals only get sick between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. - yeah, as if,” she said.

More frustrating to Dunlop is that there is a need for after-hours animal care availability. “We’ve got more animals and more vets in town but no proper service — how do you figure that?” she said.

For after hours animal care people are referred to an emergency number where someone is available around-the-clock.

“The problem is the people on the other end of the emergency line are located in Nanaimo – what good does that do anyone here?” Dunlop said.

Port Alberni used to have after-hours animal care available, she said.

Dunlop’s dog required medical attention and she called former Alberni vet Dr. Aylard, who treated her dog after hours.

Twenty-four hour animal care is a consumer product and we’re the consumers, she said.

Local clinics should be lobbied to work together to work out providing 24 hour care. “And if they don’t want to, then we should find someone who will come here and provide it,” she said.

Dunlop has spoken to Port Alberni Mayor John Douglas about the matter.

“If we’re going to be shuffled off to Nanaimo then we might as well become their suburb, pay our taxes to them, get the service and fire everyone here,” she said.

Dunlop has started a Facebook group: Save My Pet 24 hour vets, which has more than 260 members who share the same concern about 24 hour animal care in the Valley.

She’s also started a petition asking Valley residents to demand after-hours animal care in the Valley and has collected more than 400 signatures so far.

And she’s requesting an appearance before Port Alberni City Council at their next meeting to lobby for the issue.

The News called several veterinary clinics in Alberni. All but one said they were too busy to take a call.

Wanting after-hours animal care is one thing, veterinary doctor Holly Tillotsen said, but the standard of care and number of animals required to underwrite the initiative is too burdensome for it to work.

Tillotsen provides animal care at Pacific Rim Veterinary Clinic on Johnston Road. The clinic is open Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

The clinic doesn’t offer weekend or after hours service, she said.

The clinic offers medical procedures for soft tissue issues, wellness exams, spay and neutering, as well as internal medicine issues.

The College of Veterinarians of British Columbia regulates the veterinary profession in B.C. The association’s code of conduct doesn’t reference after-hours care per se.

But the Duty to Patients and Clients section notes that members must make a reasonable effort to be available, or make arrangement for follow up and care.

All veterinary clinics refer pet owners to the Central Island Emergency Clinic in Nanaimo for after hours care, Tillotsen said.

Nanaimo’s clinic is referred to for several reasons, she said. Port Alberni is part of Nanaimo’s after hours service area, which includes Nanaimo, Duncan, Parksville, Qualicum and Bowser. The facility is also larger and better equipped than most clinics.

“They have more animals that require care at night and veterinary technicians and equipment available 24 hours a day,” Tillotsen said. “It’s a standard of care that we can’t hope to rise to.”

If the service were offered, then it wouldn’t be much of one. “You couldn’t do much except maybe duct tape them together until the next morning,” she said.

At the end of the day it boils down to a business decision, Tillotsen said. “We need a certain animal population base and a large number of clinic referrals to keep the business going and we don’t have that,” she said.

Who or where Dunlop can turn to raise the issue is complicated.

The College of Veterinarians in B.C. falls under the loose auspices of the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture. “But veterinary clinics are governed by the college itself,” a ministry spokesperson said.

Small clinics aren't obliged to provide 24 hour emergency pet care if they aren’t able to, the spokesperson said.

As well, “The businesses (clinics) decide among themselves what their catchment area will be. Private industry regulates that; it has nothing to do with government,” the spokesperson said.

There is a difference between vet clinics and the Central Island Veterinary Emergency Hospital, Dr. Karen Karsten said. “Where we tend to differ is the types of medical situations we deal with routinely are sometimes things the average clinic sees only occasionally,” she said. “The level of monitoring and diagnostic equipment, added to the ‘cage-side’ 24 hour care, sets us apart from clinics.”

Previously, the only 24-hour animal care facility was in Victoria. Clinic staffs used to work exhausting hours on call. Most veterinarians were women, who found that the hours strained their family lives.

Karsten said that she felt that Nanaimo didn’t need another veterinary clinic, but rather the region needed a 24 hour emergency hospital.

Karsten examined already established guidelines, which noted that one hour of travel is a reasonable distance to use an emergency hospital, she said. Emergency staff and equipment are ready on arrival. However, at clinics there can be wait times due to paging, call backs, travel and set up, she added.

“The amount of time from the owner initiating the process to receiving the full level of care required at their regular clinic, one discovers that it often may be quicker to come to our facility directly,” Karsten said.

Running a staffed and equipped after hours has overhead costs, Karsten said. She estimates that it takes approximately 30 full-time veterinarian positions in regular practice regularly referring to an emergency clinic to make it financially sustainable.

Subsequently, Nanaimo receives regular referrals from Chemainus up to Qualicum Beach with some cases from Duncan and Courtenay/Comox, as well as from Port Alberni.

Karsten says she consulted with several clinicians in Port Alberni before she opened, and they agreed that Nanaimo’s ability to provide a new level of supervised care was of significant benefit, she said.

Nanaimo regularly treats animals from Port Alberni on an emergency basis, Karsten said. “Most clients, once they understand the process and its benefits, are pleased that we are here to offer the services we do,” she said.

Some people are unwilling to make the trek into Nanaimo, Karsten said. But, “most are not upset by this trip as they realize that we are waiting for them the second they arrive with a fully operational and staffed facility,” she said.

The choice to use Nanaimo is made by each veterinary clinic, and not by the college of veterinarians, Karsten said. “Over the past two-and-a-half years of providing services for Port Alberni, we have continued to get a great deal of positive feedback from clients and the clinics we support,” she said.

Back in Port Alberni, Dunlop says if something isn’t done then she’s prepared to take more drastic measures. “I’ll picket the clinics and tell people to take their animals to Nanaimo during business hours the same way the clinics do to other people,” she said.


Edited to reflect that clinics have a choice about whether or not they provide 24 hour medical care.



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