Gazette Vet: Vehicle Awareness

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By John Andersen, DVM

Can you guess what the most dangerous animal in North America is? Grizzly bear? Mountain Lion? Rattlesnake?

Nope… it’s the White-tailed deer, and Virginia has plenty of them ready to jump in front of your car or motorcycle when you least expect it! White-tailed deer are responsible for tens of thousands of injuries, about 150 deaths, and approximately $4.6 billion in insurance claims annually. Virginia is usually in the top 10 states in which a collision with a deer is most likely.

As I drive to and from work and around Crozet, I am amazed at the sheer numbers of wildlife killed by vehicles on a consistent basis. Unfortunately, our pets share the same lack of vehicle awareness as our wildlife and “hit by car” is an all-too-common case presentation for us small animal veterinarians.

Nothing throws our day off like getting buzzed in the back of our hospital on the intercom: “Hey guys, we have a hit-by-car coming in 5 minutes!”

First of all, we know something pretty tragic is usually coming in and it’s rarely an easy fix when a dog or cat is run over by a car. Second, we can pretty much throw out our schedule for the day as the emergency care for the injured animal will likely take time and resources away from our regular scheduled appointments. As small animal veterinarians (dogs and cats) we are not only a primary/general care facility, but also an emergency hospital during the day. This is not a complaint, we are glad to be there for our clients and emergency work is always a good challenge, however it does make for a difficult day sometimes!

The moment of truth comes when the clients walk through the door with their injured pet. Often times they are carrying their bleeding pet in their arms, barely conscious and badly wounded. But just as many times, dogs are walking in on their own accord. We have had dogs just “tapped” by a neighbor driving slowly, and we have had dogs run completely over by a UPS truck (and sadly a few run over by trains). Many times the owners never saw the accident, but found their pet injured on the side of the road. Other times, the owners backed over the dog or cat themselves in the driveway (this is surprisingly common and these poor owners feel terrible).

Our first job is assessing the severity of the patient’s injuries. This is one area where we really wish our pets could speak. “What hurts?” “Do you know what day it is?” “What’s your name?” “What happened??” Usually all we get is a painful, terrified animal who may even be trying to bite us if he is in enough pain. But we can get a sense of their mentation – i.e. are they alert or depressed. It helps if we know the dog – we actually remember if your dog is usually happy and jumping up, or timid/nervous – so seeing the normally hyperactive dog totally laid out is always a big concern.

Also in our initial evaluation is making sure they can breathe OK and their circulation is adequate. Severe trauma to the chest can often be fatal.

Next is the wound check. Many times we can see obvious lacerations and bruises. Often dogs and cats come have oil/grease somewhere on their coats. Or perhaps “road rash,” where their skin has been rubbed off after getting dragged on the pavement.

Next is checking for broken bones. This is tricky because these animals are usually  in pain and the last thing they want is for someone to be messing with their legs and joints! Unfortunately many pets will try to bite us as we examine them because they are in so much pain. I can remember several cases where we couldn’t even get the dogs out of the car because they were growling and biting at everyone that came close, including the owners. We are pretty skilled at sneaking in a backseat sedative injection.

No one is prepared to find their pet has just been hit by a car. Not only is it heartbreaking to see your animal in pain, but many times it is a financial hit as well as the care for these animals is usually intense. Between stabilizing the animal with IV fluids and hospitalization, cleansing and closing wounds, and fixing broken bones (usually with surgery), care for these animals can easily run over a thousand dollars if not several thousand.

A few tips to avoid having your pet ever meet the underside of a car:

Neuter your adult male dogs. “Roaming” is a testosterone-fueled behavior and often leads these dogs to roam long distances looking for love and adventure. A large percentage of dogs who are hit by cars are intact male dogs.

Don’t trust that your pets understand the dangers of the roads. So many of the pets who are run over have lived on the same property for years before getting run over. This easily lulls owners into a false sense of security, but there’s nothing like deer or other animals to get your dog or cat to run across the road in a hurry.

Keep your cats in at night. If you do have indoor/outdoor cats, be sure to call them in at night. Only bad things happen at night like cat fights and getting run over by cars. Set up a routine to get them in around dinner time and stay in.

Always look behind your car before backing out of the driveway! It is often the older pets who don’t hear well who don’t get up when the car starts. Don’t trust that the path is clear; be sure to take a peek behind the car before zooming off to work.

Keep dogs on a leash or in a fenced in yard. Dogs get into trouble. Period. If it’s not running out into a road, it’s eating garbage or getting cut open by barbed wire. You will save yourself a lot of time and money by keeping your dog under better supervision. It is nice if you live in the country to let your dog run around, but an electric fence is probably a much better idea.

Most pets who die don’t make it to the veterinary office. Most dogs who make it to the office are going to live as long as they receive care ASAP. I hope you never have a dog or cat who gets hit by a car, but if you do, get them to a veterinarian immediately and we’ll do our best to get them patched up!