IWAS WORKING in the office when the receptionist buzzed me on the intercom: 'An RTA has just arrived – can you come at once?' The term 'RTA' is the veterinary abbreviation for the most common cause of serious injury to pets: road traffic accident.
In the short time that it took me to rush up to our waiting room, the vet nurse on duty had already carried the injured dog through to our hospital area, giving him supplementary oxygen via a face mask. As I entered the room, the nurse looked up at me sadly, shaking her head. I knew at once what she was telling me as I grabbed a stethoscope and examined the small terrier. He was lying on his side on the examination table, not moving at all, and his eyes were wide open and unblinking.
I used the stethoscope to listen to his chest: there was no heart beat. I carried out the usual cardiopulmonary resuscitation techniques, using drugs and physical actions to try to restart his heart, but it was no good. My patient had died.
As a vet, I don't just have to deal with sick and injured animals; sometimes, it's too late to do anything to help the patient. My job then involves the difficult task of trying to console a recently bereaved owner.
In cases like this road accident, the owner is always in a state of shock. The owner of this small dog had been ushered into a quiet room, offered a glass of water, and asked to wait for news. When I came into the room, he was expecting to hear the worst, but that didn't make it any easier for him. He was an older man, and the terrier, named Bobby, had been his close companion. Half an hour ago, Bobby had been a healthy, vibrant living creature, and now he'd gone for ever. It was a terrible shock for the man to take on board.
It's difficult to help people in situations like this: the job of a vet moves from being a technical problem solver to a grief counsellor. Often it's a case of listening to people recount what has happened: telling the tale of the sequence of events sometimes seems to help some sort of acceptance of the awful reality of the loss.
In this case, the story was particularly unfortunate. The man had been walking Bobby along a busy suburban road at six in the evening. It was a drizzly evening, so visibility was poor. He was wearing a bright high-visibility jacket, but he was still aware that the cars that were rushing past himself and his dog seemed to be travelling fast and they were uncomfortably close to him. He moved as far over to the left of the pavement as he could, and pressed on towards home.
Bobby had stopped to sniff an interesting smell in the bushes on the verge, and the man had allowed him to have some extra loose leash to do this. Then out of nowhere, a cat appeared through a gap in the hedge and dashed across the road. The terrier was taken by surprise, and his instincts took over: he leapt after the cat, in full chase. He was only able to move about three yards, the full length of the extendible leash, but tragically, this was enough to bring about the disaster. The cat had managed to successfully dodge between passing cars, but the dog threw himself directly into the path of an oncoming vehicle. The man hung onto his leash helplessly as the car braked heavily and stopped. The left front wheel had gone straight over Bobby, and he was lying motionless at the edge of the road. Wasting no time, the man had picked his pet up, and the car driver, who was equally shocked, had driven them both at speed to our clinic. The man had realised during that short journey that his dog had no real chance of survival: it was obvious that he must have been killed instantly on impact. But still, there is always the hope of a small miracle, and it wasn't until I came out bearing the bad news that the reality of his pet's death sunk home. There had been no miracle: Bobby had died.
He asked to see Bobby's body, so the nurse brought him in, wrapped in a blanket. There were surprisingly few visible injuries: the damage was all internal. We made the usual arrangements: he was to be cremated, and the man would collect his ashes in due course.
As the man left, he turned to me for a final word: "Can you do me a favour?" he asked. He then asked me to write up Bobby's story in the newspaper. He had never realised that walking beside a busy road could be so dangerous, and he wanted me to warn other people about the risk.
So the message from Bobby and his owner is this: when possible, avoid walking on poorly lit narrow footpaths beside busy roads with your dog. Always keep your dog on a firm, tight leash. As well as wearing reflective clothing yourself, consider buying a high visibility jacket or collar for your dog.
The evenings are darker now that the clocks have gone back: there's a 20% increase in pedestrian road accidents during the winter months.
If you walk your dog beside busy roads, please take care: sadly, tragedies like Bobby's story happen every year.