This Biz Gives 24/7 Care: Veterinary Emergency Services

"Immediate triage for Charlie!" a voice calls out.

Clinic staff hurries to meet the owners of a pet in distress. Moments later, the animal is carried, wrapped in warm blanket, to the treatment room and inspected gingerly by Dr. David Wirth, owner of Veterinary Emergency Services (VES) in Middleton.

While all agree the eight-year-old ferret looks remarkably good for his age, Charlie's prognosis is not promising.

Dr. Wirth speaks with the owners…

Meanwhile, Vinnie, a yellow cat owned by vet tech Liz, casually explores a desktop computer. He's about to play the hero by donating blood for the welfare of future canine patients. The blood he donates tonight will last about a month, Liz says.

VES opened in 2003. Dr. Wirth recalls not getting a single call the first night, and seeing a cat with a tooth abscess the next. "We didn't know yet how to work the computers," he laughed, "so it was a really long appointment."

In those early days, three doctors alternated 63-hour weekend shifts until additional staff was hired. After 11 months, the clinic went 24/7, and in November of 2007, an east Madison clinic was added. Now, VES employs 54 staff, including 12 doctors and one limited to surgery. The staff treats about 6,000 cases annually.

Emergency vet clinics naturally see more medical and surgical cases, but the real difference between these veterinarians and general practice veterinarians is the relationship they have with pet owners — or lack thereof — says Dr. Wirth. VES doctors may only have one interaction with a pet and its owner. "We give answers," he says. "People want to know what's wrong, right now."

Another call rings out. "Immediate triage for Madie the dachshund!"

Dr. Wirth accepts and inspects the "weiner dog," whose happy demeanor belies the fact that her rear legs gave out earlier that night. "This is the number one breed for herniated discs," he observes.

The VES treatment room holds three stainless steel tables plus a "wet" table, where animals can be washed or rinsed while examined. There, "Blue,' an 8-month-old cat, is being inspected by Dr. Tobin Eshelman, who has completed his residency in vet surgery. While all VES veterinarians perform surgery, only Eshelman performs it exclusively.

Dr. Eshelman explains Blue's predicament: After numerous bouts with urinary tract problems and treatments, the "last-ditch" surgery he requires has forced his owners to surrender him to euthanasia for financial reasons. As often happens, a staff member has decided instead to adopt him, and Blue is shaved and prepped for surgery. The cat will not be happy when he awakens. While the procedure will salvage his urinary tract, his male attribute will be amputated.

Eshelman scrubs for surgery. The first scrub of the day, from fingertips to elbows, must last five minutes, he explains. Subsequent scrubs take three minutes. Surgical staff don face masks, gowns, gloves, and footies before entering the operating room. In the sterile environment, heart monitors beep and suction pumps whirr. The similarities to a hospital operating room are obvious.

Less than an hour later, Blue makes it through his ordeal. Sporting an "e-collar" resembling a lampshade, he is gently laid in a cage to recover. He'll "pee like a girl," the vet quips, but he'll live. The total cost of his treatment will be about $1,200.

Back in the treatment room, Charlie the ferret will be euthanized. His owners have chosen not to be present, and Tamara, a vet tech, strokes the animal soothingly, calming it with her voice as Dr. Wirth administers the lethal injection.

Death is part of life here, and a momentary pall overtakes the room. "I get attached very easily," Tamara says later. "Sometimes after my shift I go out to my car and cry."

Across the room, two staff members hold "Max," a large, older dog, and take his blood pressure. He is what the doctors call a "collapse dog," whose owners rushed him in after suddenly collapsing. Concerned about a possible heart condition or mass, Dr. Wirth orders x-rays, then an ultrasound. In the end, Dr. Wirth finds no immediate cause for Max's collapse. The dog is kept overnight for observation, and his owners are informed of their pet's condition. Total bill: $625.

It is 10 p.m. and Dr. Wirth heads to his office to type reports. The 15 cases today was a "slow day," but typical for this time of year.