Visiting Vet: 24/7

Explaining emergency care for Island pets.

The Animal Shelter of Martha's Vineyard. – MV Times file photo

In 1982 while researching a piece on the history of veterinary medicine on the Vineyard, I found a one-paragraph item in an old newspaper from I don’t know when … maybe as early as the late 1800s. Seems in those days a ferry went from Nantucket, stopping briefly at Martha’s Vineyard, then proceeding to the mainland. Somehow people on the Vineyard had gotten word a veterinarian was on that ferry. I can’t find the clipping anymore, but it was definitely from before 1934. That was the year Katherine M. Foote, commonly known as Kitty, established the first animal shelter here.

Kitty Foote initially came to the Vineyard on vacation in 1929. Touched by the plight of local homeless cats, she immediately began caring for Island animals, eventually moving here and establishing the Martha’s Vineyard Animal Rescue League. She employed an assistant, and occasionally a veterinarian, but often there was no full-time vet on-Island. Sometimes Kitty would personally transport sick animals to Boston for medical care if needed. The tale of Islanders meeting the ferry as it stopped in Oak Bluffs, demanding the veterinarian disembark, clearly preceded the days of Kitty Foote, and really hit home with me. On one hand, as an animal lover, I empathized with the Islanders’ predicament — no animal shelter, and not even an experienced layperson like Kitty to turn to for assistance. On the other hand, as a veterinarian, I related to that poor man (in those days he was undoubtedly male), unceremoniously snatched off the boat and put to work. What a way to end your vacation!

Now, about one hundred years later, another story circulated through our local media about the Steamship Authority helping someone transport a critically ill dog off-Island for veterinary care. The SSA has been very responsive in recent years to these situations, frequently assisting people in cases of emergency, especially if accompanied by a veterinarian’s letter. This recent story was a sad one. The dog passed away. My heart goes out to the owner. But various comments I read suggested Islanders may be confused about both the availability and constraints of local emergency veterinary care. Let’s get up to date.

Kitty Foote ultimately donated the Edgartown property to the MSPCA. They established a veterinary facility there, but found it difficult to staff consistently. Sometimes they had a full-time veterinarian, sometimes part-time, sometimes none at all. In the late 1970s the MSPCA leased the hospital to veterinarians, who opened the Island’s first private practice. When I arrived in 1982, this was the only animal hospital here. There were three doctors. Each night, each weekend, one of us would be “on call” for the entire Island (on top of working our usual 40-plus hours weekly). After-hour callers would get a recording, then the local answering service, who would page the veterinarian on call. On a beeper. That’s it. The beeper would beep. Wherever the doc in question was, we would have to get home or to a pay phone. (Ask your grandparents what beepers and pay phones are.) We’d call the answering service, get the message, then call the pet owner. Sometimes it was a true emergency. Dog hit by car. Cat having trouble breathing. Horse with colic. Sometimes it was not. Dog sprayed by skunk. Fleas. Hairballs. Eventually we got “alphanumeric” pagers, so at least when the alert came in, we would know who was paging and why.

These days, everyone has cell phones. We can return emergency calls sitting on the beach. There are six veterinary practices, some with multiple doctors, as well as equine specialists who travel over periodically. What we do not have is a 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic. Believe me, no one would be happier to see such a facility on the Island than us local veterinarians. The reality is that it does not appear to be financially feasible or sustainable. This does not mean emergency veterinary care is unavailable. We all try to make sure our clients have access to emergency services after hours. Many practices share rotating coverage. Some of us do our best to see our own clients 24/7. One practice uses a service called GuardianVets, which provides veterinarians who answer medical questions, triage by phone, and assess whether your pet needs to be seen immediately, in which case they then connect you with an Island veterinarian.

If you think your pet needs emergency care, call your veterinarian’s usual office number. If you get a recording, don’t hang up. Listen to the whole recording for instructions. If you get an answering service and are put on hold, don’t hang up. Wait for an operator. If asked to leave a message, either by recording or answering service, do it. Make sure you leave the correct phone number. Make sure your phone is turned on. Be patient. I know that’s hard, but we are human. It may take a few minutes for messages to send, for us to hear the phone, for us to call you back. If you can’t get through to your regular veterinarian for some reason, try calling another one. Maybe the call-forwarding isn’t working right. Maybe your doc’s cellphone is out of range. Technical issues happen. If no one calls back within 20 minutes, call again.

We have come a long way from the days of needing to pull a veterinarian off a passing ferry, but there are still realities that come with living on an Island. Most Vineyard veterinarians are “general practitioners” and small business owners, thus there are often limitations to our equipment, physical facilities, and/or staffing. Despite this, the veterinarians here strive consistently, repeatedly, and with great dedication, to provide emergency care. Every hour of every day. Year-round. Year after year. That’s a huge endeavor. We lament the absence of a full-service, 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic as much as you do, but continue to do our best to triage, stabilize, help make choices about next steps, and, if necessary, facilitate both referral and travel.