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24-Hour pet clinic helps vets and animals

DURHAM, N.C. (AP)--It's 10 p.m. on a Saturday night and your dog gets sick every time he eats.

You're worried. But the veterinary office doesn't open until Monday morning. What do you do until then?

Take him to the emergency room--for animals.

That's the role Triangle Pet Emergency Treatment Service Inc. plays in Durham and Orange counties. Its clinic is open from 6 p.m. until 8 a.m. during the week, 24 hours on weekends and holidays.

Last year, animals made between 4,000 and 5,000 visits to the Durham clinic. A group of about 20 local veterinarians got together in the 1980s to form an emergency clinic. But it didn't work out at first, said Dr. John Bianco, head of the clinic's board.

Several years later, the group tried again. The clinic opened in 1989 in a rented space on Durham's Hillsborough Road. By 1991, they had built a center off U.S. 15/501 and moved there.

"Our goal was to provide a better quality of care," said Bianco, who owns Quail Roost Veterinary Hospital in Rougemont.

Raleigh and Cary have emergency pet clinics open nights, weekends and holidays. Timberlyne Animal Clinic in Chapel Hill offers some after-hour care, too.

But Triangle Pets is the only clinic in Orange and Durham counties that keeps those hours. The clinic has 23 employees, including three veterinarians.

Each veterinarian who started Triangle Pets has a share in it. Since then, more vets have become shareholders.

The clinic offers a dual benefit, Bianco said. Pet owners have a place to take injured or sick animals at any hour of the night, and veterinarians can focus on their daily practice.

If a doctor is called out to attend to an animal at 2 a.m., his standard of care may not be top-notch on his following regular work shift, Bianco said.

Dr. Larry Swenberg of Cornwallis Road Animal Hospital, agrees. "The primary advantage is it gives our people a life," Swenberg said of Triangle Pets.

Cornwallis Road also is a Triangle Pets shareholder.

The clinic is open to most small animals, regardless of whether their primary veterinarian is one of the shareholders, Bianco said.

Triangle Pets is equipped with three exam rooms, three procedure tables and several cages where pets can be monitored after a procedure. There is also an X-ray machine, other diagnostic equipment and an operating room.

When animals arrive, they are triaged. A dog with breathing problems will be treated first, for example, even if there's another dog with a less serious injury waiting, Bianco said.

A quick call before leaving home can help the clinic staff.

"The staff does appreciate it if people call ahead," Bianco said. Calling ahead gives staff the opportunity to prepare for the animal, or if necessary, to direct the animal to another hospital in Raleigh or Cary.

Triangle Pets, for example, does not have the expertise to treat exotic pets such as birds and snakes. But a center in Wake County does. Calling ahead can route the pet owner to the proper place.

Also, some issues can be addressed over the phone. Nancy Gordon of Durham, who owns three dogs and a cat, knows about that.

One of her dogs once ate some chocolate, which is supposed to be toxic for them. "I was freaked and I called them," she said. "They were very nice."

From the clinic she learned the chocolate her dog had eaten wasn't as toxic as other types. Her dog was OK and she didn't have to take him to the clinic.

During the day, the clinic is becoming a place where specialists can set up shop for one day a week.

On Monday afternoons, N.C. State's College of Veterinary Medicine brings students to Triangle Pets for an ophthalmology clinic. On Wednesday afternoons, a veterinarian specializing in dermatology has a clinic there.

It's a plus, Swenberg said, to not have to send pets and their owners to Cary to see an ophthalmology specialist.

Bianco and Swenberg would like to bring more specialists to use the clinic during the day.

The clinic's unusual hours don't bother Sue Hall, the office manager.

"For the most part I like what I do," Hall said. "For the most part. There are some sad times."

It can be difficult to find knowledgeable, experienced people willing to work those kinds of hours, she said.

The clinic treats a lot of injuries, such as snakebites or when a car hits an animal, Hall said.

Chris Wachholz of Efland is a happy customer.

"We've taken both of our dogs there. We've always found them to be very helpful and available," Wachholz said.

Wachholz has a 10-year-old Labrador and German shepherd mix named Sheba, and an Australian cattle dog that is nearly 10 named Tazzy, short for Tasmanian devil.

"We live in the country. They are very active, jumping, running and chasing," Wachholz said.

The dogs have been treated for objects in their eyes, lacerations and other minor injuries over the years.

Depending on the pet's condition, it may stay at the clinic all night. In the morning, the pet owner can take it home or to its regular veterinarian.

If a pet visits the clinic, Triangle Pets staff faxes the animal's regular veterinarian a report on what happened and how the problem was treated.

When Gordon took her terrier mix to the clinic a couple of years ago, she was able to pick him up a few hours later.

On that night, her two terrier mixes Connor and Buddy had gotten into a fight. Connor wound up with a deep bite in his shoulder. Triangle Pets stitched him up.

"I think they provide a very valuable service," Gordon said. "It was expensive, but you know, OK, that's fair."

Emergency care for pets, as with humans, is expensive.

At Triangle Pets, Bianco said the work is labor-intensive. When an owner leaves a pet there for the night after an illness or accident, someone has to monitor that pet's condition, he said. And labor costs for overnight, weekend and holiday hours are often more expensive.

There are some exceptions. The clinic waives the majority of fees to treat police dogs from surrounding communities.

The clinic also has a policy with the Red Cross to provide discounted care to animals injured in a disaster, such as a house fire.

Date: 2/20/06

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