Animal ambulances answer growing demand for pet emergency care
Firms such as Animals at Home offer range of care services and can step in when pets are in trouble
Verity Hope, an Animals at Home franchisee, with Polly the westie in Tamworth. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/the Guardian
The day did not begin as expected for Verity Hope. She had been due to spend a wet November morning making a trip to a vet with a reactive dog, but the client phoned in sick. Then another job cropped up: taking a dead rabbit to a pet crematorium.
It may seem an eclectic set of requests, but for Verity and her animal ambulance it is the norm. Since the start of the pandemic, 4.7m households have acquired a new pet. Changes in work patterns and everyday pressures mean many need support.
Into this melee has come an army of independent pet sitters and dog boarders, while Uber offers an option to travel with a dog. But fees vary, as does the skill and experience of those offering pet care. And few offer support for more unexpected events.
One of the companies that does is Animals at Home. As well as offering the typical range of pet care services, it steps in when animals get into a scrape.
Verity, a former mental health nurse, and her husband, Jon, run the North Warwickshire franchise. Their kitted-out animal ambulance containing crates and stretchers has been put to good use.
One client called after his boxer cannoned into the side of his rottweiler, injuring the latter. “The guy could drive but because of the pain that she was in, he didn’t want to be manhandling her around,” said Verity.
The dog was rushed to a specialist veterinary practice where it had an MRI scan, revealing damage to the spine. It was fixed with a 3D-printed implant.
On another call, Jon dashed out in the small hours to collect a cat having difficulties during labour. The owner couldn’t drive. As Jon rushed the cat to the vet, he saw on the ambulance’s camera system that it was giving birth again. The next day, there was another call: the cat and kittens needed a lift home.
Verity Hope taking Polly the westie for a walk. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
Franchisees are trained to give first aid to animals and undergo an intensive two-day course at a veterinary training hospital. The upshot is they can act as a second pair of ears for a diagnosis or prognosis while helping to handle a pet at the vet.
They are also there at the end of life: the team has connections with local vets to offer an at-home service when animals need to be put to sleep, and with local pet crematoriums.
While some people may choose a cheaper option – routine pet transport with Animals at Home costs about £30 an hour – Ann Luffman, a co-managing director of the company, said standards mattered.
“It’s the turning up in uniform. It’s having the animal ambulance available for any circumstance. Everything is fit for purpose, as opposed to an ad hoc standalone person that’s doing a few jobs,” she said.
The company has franchises nationwide, offering their services to 5m households within their licenced areas.
Not every call is an emergency. In a cosy living room in Tamworth, I met June*, 89, and her west highland terrier, Polly.
“I’ve got no means of getting to the vets. She didn’t like cars. My son-in-law used to take me, but it was a job to keep her up on my lap,” said June as Polly twirled happily around the living room.
Animals at Home has not only taken Polly to appointments but also provided canine care while June was having an operation.
Polly the westie out for a walk in Tamworth. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
The company works with local councils under the Care Act to look after pets when owners are taken into hospital, and offers transport to charities including Cats Protection, Guide Dogs and StreetVet.
Some franchises offer dog training, or even chaperoning of pets at weddings. Iain Sherring, a former Animals at Home franchisee and now co-managing director, said some would tend to horses, small holdings or exotic pets.
“Sometimes you get an inquiry come through with ‘I’ve got a so-and-so’ and you think: my god, what’s that? So it’s a quick Google …,” he said.
For Guy Smith, a vet at St Mary’s veterinary surgery in Tamworth, such services are crucial. Having run a mobile veterinary service for three years, Smith came to realise the approach was not efficient.
“I’ve got a shortage of vets here,” he said. “If someone else will do the driving then that’s great.”
Sherring said increasing awareness of the emergency service is a challenge, not least as is it involves owners confronting the possibility of their pets encountering emergencies.
“It’s finding that little way of saying ‘here we are. You don’t need to use us – but you really need to think about it,’” he said.
*Some names have been changed