Every year Vets Now receives almost 500,000 calls – at the weekend, on bank holidays, and through the night – from people worried their pet is sick or injured. These queries are handled by a talented and dedicated team of staff who are specially trained to offer peace of mind and expert guidance at those times pet owners need it most.
Journalist Gayle Ritchie, who works for The Courier, one of Scotland’s most popular newspapers, spent an evening shadowing those call handlers in the Vets Now contact centre in Dunfermline, Fife. Here she gives her take on what it’s like to work on the front line of pet emergency care.
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The phones are ringing off the hooks inside the pet emergency care contact centre, despite the fact it’s just gone midnight.
Pulling on a headset, I tune into call handler Heather McKechnie’s conversation with a worried dog owner who has phoned in from Liverpool. His four-month-old boxer puppy has swallowed a pair of pants – a thong, to be precise – and is hiccupping madly.
Heather runs through a series of questions and then seeks advice from on-duty veterinary nurse, Steph Dobbs. “There’s a high chance the thong won’t pass and if it gets stuck, he might need surgery,” she says.
“He needs to go to the pet emergency clinic as soon as possible.” Heather relays this information to the owner, provides the address of his nearest clinic and warns that while the call and advice is free, there’s an out-of-hours consultation fee at the clinic.
Reassuringly, the boxer pup should be seen within 15 minutes and hopefully all will end well. There’s no time to dwell on this because no sooner than the call has ended, the phone rings again.
This time it’s a woman from Canterbury who fears her 13-week-old spaniel has been hit by a car, as he’s jerking and juddering. Again, the advice is to get to the clinic. During the shift – which runs from 6 pm to 1 am – the 20 call handlers at Vet Now’s Dunfermline headquarters hear from more than 600 pet owners.
This number will rocket by as much as 50% during bank holidays, with animals eating dangerous items such as chocolates, batteries, and toxic plants behind much of the increase.
When I visit, calls range from the traumatic (dogs and cats hit by cars, and in one case, dying at the scene), to the bizarre (a “stoned” American pit bull that’s eaten a lump of cannabis) to the humorous – including an “aggressive hamster” with “large” testicles and a nasty bite.
There’s a French bulldog suffering an epileptic fit, a Jug (Jack Russell terrier and pug cross) which had hot sticky liquid spilled down his back, a hypothermic rabbit, a dog in distress having given birth to a litter of puppies, a shaking, yowling cat and a breathless Newfoundland puppy who’s lost his appetite.
How do the call handlers deal with the emotional fall-out? “It can be very sad, especially when an animal is really ill, but ultimately, you’re doing a good thing,” says Heather.
“We deal with some very distressing situations, but it’s a great working environment in a happy, relaxed atmosphere. It’s a fascinating job. The calls are varied, so it’s never boring. And we’ve got a pet-friendly policy, so there are usually three or four dogs around to stroke.”
More than 1,000 veterinary practices across the UK use Vets Now to provide clients with a seamless out-of-hours emergency care service.
The Fife contact centre handles nearly 500,000 calls a year, the majority of which come from pet owners needing reassurance at the weekend or in the evening when their local daytime vet is closed.
“A few call handlers are clinically trained but most come from a customer service background, and they all go through training,” she says. “Most are pet owners so they’re able to empathise with clients and take them through the steps to get their pets quickly and safely to a clinic, or how best to care for them at home.
“They don’t need experience of animals and rather, should have a willingness to speak to people on the phone, and be calm and caring.
“And there’s always a trained veterinary nurse on hand to offer expert clinical advice whenever it’s required.”
Summer is one of the busiest times of year for pet emergencies, with increased hazards out and about.
That’s why the centre is recruiting now for call handlers with great communication skills and the ability to stay calm under pressure. “It’s vital that distressed pet owners get the best possible service right from the moment they pick up the phone to us,” says head of client service Lisa Maxwell.
“We’re dedicated to urgent critical care, and we’ll advise whether you need to bring your pet into the clinic for immediate treatment and provide free advice over the phone.”