SAN DIEGO — Brad pounds his fists into the examining room wall. Anger, hurt and frustration cross his reddened face. Next to him, in San Diego's Emergency Animal Clinic, lies his prize possession, Tanker, his pet German shepherd who, for unknown reasons, jumped from the back of his pickup truck an hour earlier on the freeway.
As head veterinarian Paul Schaffner describes the seriousness of the injuries and costs involved in keeping the animal alive, Brad, 20, buries his head in his hands and sobs. Then he makes the inevitable decision and Tanker is "put to sleep."
"We get this type of case frequently," Schaffner said, shaking his head. "I don't know what possesses people to think absolutely nothing of putting a large dog in the back of an open truck, untied, and zoom down the freeway. Terrible injuries result when a dog jumps out. And it's the most preventable kind of accident."
Just as Brad painfully comes to terms with losing a pet that was a healthy animal only hours earlier, another case enters the clinic. A couple in their 60s fight back tears as they bring in a cat that's in obvious distress.
"Ginnie was just playing with some thread in the living room but it was attached to a sewing needle," the husband blurts out. "Before we knew it, she swallowed the whole thing."
Schaffner's staff acts quickly. As the couple comfort each other, the thread and needle are removed, and Ginnie makes it through the crisis with only her dignity ruffled.
"It wasn't the needle that concerned us," Schaffner said. "The real danger is the thread. Once it gets entwined in the intestines, it can slice right through them."
In a corner of the clinic's waiting room, a family of seven awaits the fate of their great Dane. The animal devoured a huge meal earlier in the day, then became dazed and his breathing labored.
Gastric bloat, another common ailment seen at the clinic, was the culprit.
"The problem is that large dogs will overeat if you let them," Schaffner said. "They can eat so much that it literally blocks up their system and causes gas buildup with no way to be expelled. It's an acute condition that comes on rapidly, and a dog can die within an hour if it's not treated."
A stomach tube inserted into the great Dane did the trick. The family was overjoyed and thanked Schaffner profusely.
So it went on a recent night at the Emergency Animal Clinic in Mission Valley. Open from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. weekdays and 24 hours on weekends, the clinic serves the same function as an emergency room at a hospital for humans. The North County Emergency Animal Clinic in Vista also has special hours.
A typical night at the Mission Valley clinic brings in 15 to 40 cases, and as many as 10 cases at once during peak times on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
There's a vast array of high-tech medical equipment available that includes respirators, X-ray equipment and anesthesia machines.
Schaffner, a five-year veteran of the clinic, and his assistant, Jeff Robbins--whose own pets include seven horses, four dogs, five cats, two fish, a parrot and a cow--oversee the whole range of emergency injuries. Most are dogs and cats, but patients can also include rats, mice, chinchillas, ferrets, turtles, and even a few gulls or pelicans unlucky enough to get caught in nets or hooks.
A few unexpected guests arrive--like the bobcat injured in traffic near Julian that was brought in by the California Highway Patrol, and a deer that a couple took to the clinic in their pickup after seeing it get hit by a car in the Cuyamaca Mountains.
Through Project Wildlife, the clinic donates its services for treating wild animals, which are eventually returned to their native habitat.
By far the most common injuries are dogs and cats being hit by cars.
Fees range from the basic examination charge of $20 up to a possible $1,400 for emergency treatment.
"The cases in the $30 to $40 range far exceed those that total over $1,000," Schaffner said.
Cases where fees can quickly escalate to the $1,000 range almost exclusively involve large dogs suffering severe car injuries.
In that category was a German shepherd that had come in a few nights earlier.
"It had been extensively damaged by a car and the skin and fur on one side was all skinned off. I could look in the cavity and actually see the lungs moving," Schaffner said.
The staff stabilized the dog with oxygen and gave it drugs for shock. Then the veterinarian cleaned out the chest, wired the dog's ribs shut and sutured the muscles in the damaged area.
"In that kind of case where extensive work is needed immediately the bill can go up to $1,400 virtually overnight," Schaffner said. "The dentist who owned the animal had no problem with the fee. He was just relieved the dog made it through all that successfully."
More common are the under $100 services rendered for such ailments as gastric bloat, poisonings, accidental swallowing, performing Caesarean sections and plucking out burrs and foxtails from eyes and ears.