A weekend listening to ‘911 for pets’

Area vets provide after-hours emergency hotline

Illustration by Peter Hamlin.;

It’s only natural that one of the calls to the hotline would be concerning the threat of a highly-contagious viral outbreak.

“My dog gave birth to a litter last weekend,” the caller said, “and I just found out that one of the puppies died of parvo.”


Parvo is a gastro-intestinal disease caused by the canine parvovirus. It’s believed to be up to 91% fatal if not treated. The caller was convinced her new-mom dog had it. “She’s acting like she doesn’t feel well,” she said, without providing specifics.

The concerned dog owner is calling the Our Vet hotline, a number connecting several veterinarian offices and animal hospitals in North Carolina, ranging from Raleigh and Cary to Asheboro.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the hospitals have closed to routine animal care but are still available for emergencies for limited hours during the week. Nights and weekends, all the office phones are routed to Our Vet, which is staffed by some of the vet techs who have seen their in-office hours slashed over the last two months.

The vet techs working the phones have access to each animal hospital’s reservations system, so they can book appointments during the week, if necessary. The software allows them to access the computer at each clinic’s front desk, to the point that a user can spy on the office’s internet searches in real-time using the software.

Many of the calls to the pet 911 line are fairly pedestrian. Callers ask when they can come in to pay their bills or inquire about the price of spaying a dog, then casually ask whether the animal really needs to be spayed.

Others are clear emergencies that need to be routed to a 24/7 animal hospital in Raleigh — there are none currently operating near Greensboro. One caller said he was pretty sure his dog broke his leg. Another had a dog who had been in labor for more than 24 hours. “I’m pretty sure she needs a c-section,” he said. Still another had a mare who had just gone into labor.

Unlike a pre-pandemic veterinarian’s office, most of the callers don’t share their pet’s name. If someone is calling at 10:30 on a Saturday night or before 7 a.m. on a Sunday, the situation is likely too dire for such pleasantries. Instead it’s, “I think my dog swallowed something,” or “Something’s wrong with the cat.”

Incidentally, perhaps emphasizing the stereotypical loyalty and independence of the two species, callers almost always refer to “my dog” and “the cat.”

Saturday afternoons and early evenings seem to be a time for callers who put off a Friday trip to the emergency vet, hoping that the situation would be better by the time Monday rolled around. Now that there’s still half the weekend left, they seem to realize that they may need intervention.

“My dog’s foot is swollen really badly.”

“I was planning to put my cat to sleep on Monday, but now I’m not sure she’s going to make it.”

Very few calls result in appointments being made. If a situation doesn’t merit a trip to the E.R., the techs can usually resolve it over the phone.

One caller is convinced that the cat hasn’t gone to the bathroom in four days.

“She’s acting very uncomfortable,” she said. “She keeps raising her rear end in the air and backing into things.”

“Are you letting the cat outside?” the tech asks.

“Yes, she keeps asking to go out, even right after I let her back in.”

“Is she spayed?” the tech asks, which seems like an even odder question than the first.

“No. She just had a litter of kittens a few weeks ago.”

“OK,” the tech concludes. “I’m pretty sure your cat is going to the bathroom while she’s outside. Also, she’s in heat. That’s why she’s acting that way.”

The caller agrees to leave the cat inside for the foreseeable future, to avoid unwanted pregnancy and to provide evidence that her digestive system is working properly.

A short time later, a frantic caller reports, “My dog ate some of my melatonin gummies.”

After establishing the size of the dog and the number of gummies swallowed, the vet tech assures the caller that there is no mortal risk.
“He might just sleep a little more than usual.”

Then there’s the potential parvo pandemic.

“The main symptom of parvo is bloody diarrhea,” the tech says.

“Oh, she doesn’t have that,” the caller replies.

“If the puppy and the dog passed parvo to each other, she’d be showing symptoms by now,” the tech assures her. “So I think she’s safe.”
The nebulous “not feeling well” turns out to be a lack of appetite.

“Try making her some broiled chicken and rice,” the tech suggests.

After a brief pause, the tech adds a quick, “without the bones.”

When working the pet 911 line, it’s never a good idea to assume a caller knows anything.