Carlye Morgan knew something was wrong when her 9-year-old Great Dane refused to eat her dinner.
Maggie never passed on food.
So Morgan loaded her beloved pet into her car that evening in December and drove a short distance to Urgent Pet Care of South Tampa on Henderson Boulevard. She had heard that her regular veterinarian started seeing patients after-hours.
"It was so convenient," said Morgan, who would have had to drive to North Tampa for emergency services before the clinic opened in November. By the time the veterinarian finished with Maggie, it was 1 a.m.
Such facilities for animals are necessary now more than ever. An after-hours clinic in Brandon has existed for more than 20 years, while new services are beginning to crop up in Tampa and northern Hillsborough. Much of the reason is simple mathematics. More people have pets than was the case 30 or so years ago. In 2001, 38 million homes had dogs. By 2006, that number rose to 43 million, said David Kirkpatrick, spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association. And cat owners mirrored the trend, he said.
Related local industries are following suit, including boutiques, specialty health and, now, after-hours veterinarian services, such as the one where Morgan took Maggie.
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In Westchase, Dr. Albert Guirguis opened his Racetrack Animal Hospital on Countryway Boulevard six months ago. He forwards his office phone to his cell phone when he leaves and takes calls anytime — even in the middle of the night.
"Veterinarian medicine is my life," he says. "It is out of my love to the pets. I treat them like my sons and my daughters."
His attitude reflects that of many owners these days.
Thirty years ago, most pets lived outside, Kirkpatrick said. Today pets are more likely to be considered part of the family — even when it comes to medical treatment.
"The human-animal bond has grown so dramatically that people expect the same care for their pets as for themselves," Kirkpatrick said.
The service in South Tampa is a convenience to clients of Veterinary Medical Clinic and other area pet owners, said director Eddie Garcia. Urgent Pet Care operates from 6:30 to 11 p.m. out of the clinic.
Eighty percent of the patients have urgent, rather than life-threatening emergencies, Garcia said. They have included cats injured in late-night tangles with other cats, pets with allergic reactions and a dog in diabetic crisis.
Four patients came in the first night the service opened.
Garcia says the service won't compete with others that specialize in emergency care, such as Florida Veterinary Specialists on Busch Lake Boulevard or Tampa Bay Veterinary Emergency Service on Bearss Avenue. He regularly refers pet owners to those facilities, which are better equipped to handle traumas.
The Animal Emergency Clinic of Brandon has been around since 1987 and, despite the economy, people are still bringing their pets into the clinic, "like they're their children," said administrator Valerie Heatherly. But pet owners have increasingly skipped costly procedures, sometimes opting to euthanize their dogs or cats instead.
Routine procedures cost between $100 and $200, Heatherly said, but some surgeries can come close to $1,000. The clinic is open from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. on weekdays and noon Saturday to 8 a.m. Monday, and Heatherly is confident business will pick up when the economy bounces back.
"The recession has hit the animal world very hard," she said. "They're family members so when the family is hurting, so are they."
At Urgent Pet Care, the evening resident veterinarian, Shelly Marquardt, recently chatted with technician Lisa Murawski about patients. She has treated dogs with accidental gunshot wounds in Oklahoma and had done a cesarean on a cow.
"You're never bored," Marquardt said. Not long ago, she treated a dog with an infection on its spine and two that were hit by cars.
Since graduating from vet school in 1968, Garcia said he has watched the evolution of emergency veterinarian services. Back then, veterinarians typically took calls after hours. Then, in Tampa, a group of local veterinarians formed an on-call co-op, where each took turns answering calls, Garcia said.
Next, the group opened a veterinary hospital just north of downtown, which later closed.
These days, most veterinarians refer after-hour emergencies to a few specialized hospitals.
Not Guirguis, in Westchase. He was 9 when he helped neuter his own cat. His father, who was a veterinarian, as was his father before him, had rescued a kitten run over in a street. He set broken bones and nursed it back to health. They named him Michelin for the tire marks that had been on him. When it came time to neuter him, Guirguis' father asked if he wanted to help. He did.
"It was at this moment that I knew what I wanted to be," he said.
He has treated bizarre cases such as a camel in Egypt and a cat caught in a raccoon trap. Camels and cats are similar in nature, he said. Unpredictable.
Lately, his after-hours calls have been from owners whose dogs have eaten things they shouldn't. Foods and holiday decorations often pose problems.
So it was for Maggie, the Great Dane. Like many of her breed, she suffers from separation anxiety when left alone at home, said her owner Morgan. To relieve the anxiety, she eats things. Like socks or cookbooks.
Maggie was in surgery within hours after reaching the clinic. Marquardt found and extracted the problem from her stomach. Weeks earlier, it seems, Maggie had eaten the Christmas apron.
Times reporter Kim Wilmath contributed to this story. Elisabeth Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3431.