A recent incident on my current housesitting assignment got me thinking about how well prepared any of us are when we take responsibility for a client’s home and pets.
I’d been overseeing some renovations on the house and while the builders were bringing in tools and materials, the dogs (Mac – my client’s dog and Eddie – my own dog) took the opportunity to sneak out and go for a wander in the nearby woods. I wasn’t too worried as they’d done this a few times – both on my watch and when my client was at home. The routine was to periodically yell their names and eventually they would both turn up, usually filthy dirty but very pleased with themselves.
However on this particular day, things took an unexpected turn which resulted in me having to deal with the kind of situation every housesitter hopes they will never have to face.
Three hours after the escape to the woods, Mac returned – as usual caked in mud and ready for a lie down in a shady spot. But there was no sign of Eddie. A few minutes later I glanced out of the window and saw the horrific sight of Eddie staggering and crawling up the steep bank at the side of the house, shaking uncontrollably and foaming at the mouth.
I dashed out to scoop her up and bring her into the shade. Then I dashed back into the house to get my poison/snake bite kit. It was something I’d brought with me from home in Cyprus, where we have a lot of problems with reckless poison laying. Dog owners who walk in the countryside often carry a kit because when it comes to treating a poisoning or a snake bite, time is of the essence.
I’d not administered an injection before and found my hands shaking almost as much as Eddie was. Fortunately, the builders were nearby and helped by breaking the phials of antidote and holding Eddie while I filled the syringe, expelled the air (thanks ER and House for the lessons over the years) then grabbed the scruff of Eddie’s neck and pushed the needle in.
I knew that the medicine I had was only first aid and that what was needed was an immediate trip to the vet. I phoned the usual vet whose clinic is only a mile away – no answer, no voicemail. That’s the problem here in rural Italy – everything closes for most of the afternoon and the kind of telephone technology we may be used to in the UK, US, Australia etc., just doesn’t exist – at least not for small country businesses like this.
So grabbing one of the builders, Robert, to ride shotgun, I put Eddie in the back of my car. I was just about to set off when I glanced at Mac. He was just starting to salivate abnormally. so I grabbed him too and off we went in search of a vet that might be open. The next nearest vet is maybe only five miles away as the crow flies, but the Le Marche landscape means the distance is at least doubled and there are few places to really put your foot down – it’s hills and hairpin bends all the way.
I drove as fast as the terrain would allow but part way there I could see the increasingly concerned look on Robert’s face. Eddie was fading fast. I screeched to a halt and Robert took over driving while I jumped in the back with Eddie. Mac joined in the musical seats, jumping into the front passenger seat (in the rush I’d not fastened him into his harness). Despite being thrown about by the road, I managed to load another syringe and get another dose of antidote into Eddie. Then all I could do was hold her and do my best to comfort her as she went through sheer hell.
We arrived at the vet in the next town only to discover that he too was closed! No! Time was running out for Eddie. Then Robert remembered a 24 hour vet in another town – but it was half an hour away from our current location. We set off, Robert testing my car to its limits. Inevitably, en route we encountered every obstacle imaginable – then the heavens opened making the roads incredibly dangerous. I told Robert to slow down and take care. Better we arrive safely – even if too late for Eddie – than for us all to meet our doom on the way. Then Mac started vomiting – all over the seat, the gear lever and all the nooks and crannies that are impossible to clean!
After what seemed an eternity, we arrived at the 24 hour vet. I hurtled out of the car, Eddie in my arms and into the surgery. “POISION!” I shouted. They immediately whisked her away from me. Robert brought in Mac who was also whisked off for immediate treatment.
Two hours later I was finally allowed to see them. Fortunately, Mac had only mild symptoms and his vomiting had got rid of whatever he’d eaten. After a few hours observation he was allowed to come home. Eddie however was in a much worse state. When I got to see her she was unconscious with endless tubes, drips and monitors in or on her. She was going to have to stay in hospital.
Twenty four hours later, she was allowed to come home but was a long way from being fully recovered. The vet had found a lot of pieces of sausage in her stomach. She must have found it in the woods. But how would sausage get there? The Italian farmer next door enlightened me. The hunters here don’t like anyone or anything interfering with the wildlife that they plan to shoot, so to dispose of unwanted dogs or foxes, they dip pieces of sausage in engine coolant or anti-freeze and leave them around.
So now things have calmed down a little, I’ve had chance to reflect on what happened, how I dealt with it, what went well and what additional preparations I could have made to be able to deal with the situation better. Here are my thoughts:
- Programme the telephone number of the vet for your current assignment into your phone – so you aren’t trying to find it in the manual or on the notice board.
- If the homeowner hasn’t taken you there – go before you need to. Know the fastest route, where to park etc.
- Know their opening hours. Call them out of hours to hear if they have an emergency number, special instructions etc – it’s a lot easier to write these down when you are calm than when you are in the midst of a crisis
- Have a backup vet – preferably a 24 hour one – and repeat 1, 2 & 3 above for them.
- Learn a few key words in the local language. Perhaps have them on a piece of paper in your purse or wallet. Even if you can’t pronounce then you can point to them. I was ‘lucky’ – Eddie’s symptoms clearly indicated poisoning and the vet spoke some English. I didn’t know the Italian word for poison – I do now.
- If you are looking after multiple pets and one of them is taken ill, if it’s anything that could be affecting the others, take them all to the vets – even if they aren’t displaying symptoms yet. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
- If possible, and the homeowner is willing, have a first aid kit. Familiarise yourself with its contents and how to adminster them. Which medicine is for what situation, how much to give, how and where. Keep it somewhere readily accessible – and memorable.
- If you have a car, or the use of a car, make sure it is always fuelled up so that you can get to where you need without stopping for fuel.
- If you don’t have a car, have a plan of how you will get to the vet in an emergency. Neighbours, taxis, buses – have all the phone numbers programmed in your phone.
- A waterproof cover and harness clips keep dogs – and their emissions – in manageable places. It is Sod’s Law a dog will vomit in the most inaccessible of places otherwise. Having to get your car valeted, including seat removal, in the aftermath of an emergency is added hassle and expense you want to avoid.
- Get the situation under control first
- Unless you need to speak to the homeowner to get missing information, don’t contact them mid-crisis. There is nothing they can do while they are away and you will be inflicting unnecessary worry and heartache
- Get yourself calmed down before you contact them. Hearing a calm, professional voice instead of weeping and wailing will reassure them you have even the worst situation under control.
- A phone call is better than an email. You can immediately answer questions and reassure. In my situation, I’d just been trying to reach the homeowner when the vet called to say Mac could come home. So I left the homeowner a voicemail that I could do with a quick chat with her in a couple of hours, that it wasn’t anything to worry about, just something that was better on the phone than by email. Then when Mac and I got home, I set up a video call so that I could tell her what had happened then show her that Mac was home, well and very proud of his blue bandage where the drip had been.
I hope none of you ever have to deal with a similar situation, and I am sure I am teaching many grandmas to suck eggs, but if one pet’s life can be saved, I thought it worthwhile to share my observations.
Thanks for reading.