GALLERY: RSPCA, Gimme shelter

The RSPCA’s Tighes Hill veterinary hospital is a virtual emergency room, hospital and rescue centre all under one roof.  Helen Gregory takes a look at this hive of activity, where pet owners and professionals have a common goal.

THE sign on the door of RSPCA’s Tighes Hill veterinary hospital reads ‘‘All dogs and cats must be secured in a cage or on a lead’’ – and with good reason.

When energetic bullmastiff-dane cross Dozer bursts in the door he is dragging his owner with such strength the man’s soles slip on the linoleum floor.

A nurse needs to restrain the  60-kilogram hound while two others reward him with tidbits as his ears are cleaned.

Dozer is just one of the 27 appointments – and five surgeries – that the three vets on shift will see today.

Private patients make up the bulk of the clinic’s clients  from as far as the Central Coast, Nelson Bay and Muswellbrook.

The most common reasons for their visits are preventative health checks, including vaccinations, annual heartworm injections and flea control medication that can cover an animal for six months at a time and dental conditions – often due to eating mushy food – that can lead to systemic problems.

There is also an increasing number of older dogs and cats experiencing pain and at this time of year, and skin conditions – including hot spots and itchiness often caused by fleas.

On top of the average day of 30appointments for private clients, the hospital is also responsible for medical attention for the dozen or so animals brought in each day by members of the public and council rangers.

‘‘They can be a cute little pedigree puppy right through to an old scabby dog in need of care,’’ nursing manager Gai Pepperall said.

Many are pets found on the streets, often because they haven’t been desexed.

‘‘A male dog that’s not desexed can smell a female on heat up to 10 kilometres away,’’ Pepperall said.

(The RSPCA has a program where it pays for a third of the price of a castration, Hunter Animal Watch pays a third and the pet’s owner pays a third. The RSPCA at Tighes Hill has spent $31,000 in the past three months alone on desexing.)

But some animals come to the hospital after being surrendered by owners that cannot keep their pets, in some cases due to moving into a new rental property that doesn’t allow animals.

Others have been seized by inspectors after being abused, including the recent case of a canine whose owner didn’t seek attention for the dog’s serious injuries.

It had emergency surgery the day it arrived at the hospital, followed by another two operations at a cost of $3000.

‘‘Sometimes it can be heart-rending,’’ Pepperall said.

‘‘It breaks your heart. You think ‘What’s wrong with the world’?’’

Stray and shelter dogs are kept in kennels outside, while the collected cats are kept in their own room.

The cages feature a white and ginger feline scratching in its litter, and a large, black and white puss with green eyes.

Pepperall said the start of spring and ‘‘cat season’’ will see an increase in the number of cats brought to the hospital.

‘‘Cats can breed very early and can have kittens from four months on, with many becoming pregnant from five or six months on. People wait to get them desexed and then all of a sudden they’re pregnant.

‘‘There are also many cases of feral cats that breed under houses.’’

At its busiest, usually after many litters of kittens have been surrendered, the RSPCA can have up to 50 cats at one time.

Pepperall said the RSPCA makes these kittens as foster-home friendly as possible by checking, desexing, microchipping, vaccinating and giving worm treatments to the youngsters before they are handed to a new owner.

These kittens cost $200 to adopt, while older cats are $170.

All pups and dogs put up for adoption  get the same treatment, and are heartworm tested and put on  heartworm and flea control prevention.

The price for a dog depends on its age, breed and pedigree, with a $100 starting point for dogs over eight years old and the price for other dogs reaching up to $570.

The RSPCA conducts premise inspections before these dogs (and birds) are sent to a new home to check the environment is safe, secure and appropriate for the breed and the prospective owner.

The staff are also generous with their homes and often act as foster parents, with Pepperall about to take eight kittens herself.

She started working on Saturday mornings for her vet  friend and came 16 years ago to work at the RSPCA at Elermore Vale.

She has managed Rutherford for eight years and Tighes Hill since its opening seven years ago.

During this time she has also become mother to a cockatoo that was cherished by an elderly couple before being moved by the pair’s children into a cage inside a dark garage, followed by 12 months of minimal human contact.

Other stray or shelter birds are kept in their own room, including a pigeon with clipped wings from Adamstown.

‘‘They usually take seven months to grow back so we’ve surgically removed the clipped feathers so they regrow in six weeks instead,’’ Pepperall said.

‘‘Hopefully he will just fly home.’’

The 30 or so wild animals brought in each week by the Native Animals Trust, including possums, kangaroos, birds, wombats and sugargliders, are also kept in their own separate room.

The hospital is currently looking after a small peewee (also known as a magpie-lark) with damaged wings and a blue and green budgie with damaged wings and missing tail feathers.

The hospital treats animals if they need medical attention and holds them for 24hours in the hope they will be reclaimed.

If they are not collected, the animals go to Rutherford for seven to 14 days where they are assessed for behavioural or medical problems and it is decided whether they can be sent to a new home.

Pepperall said the staff work with animals with behavioural problems, with some animals changing their behaviours when they are relocated.

Vets must assess for animals with medical problems whether long-term medication is necessary and worthwhile.

‘‘There are more animals than there are homes,’’ Pepperall said.‘‘But it’s not about rehoming a dog that you have an issue with and will throw out the back and it’s left alone.

‘‘We want to put it in the right home so it’s going to have a good life for the rest of its life.’’

There are many happy endings, including the story of an elderly woman who had to go to hospital and gave her cat to the RSPCA hospital for about 12 months.

When she wasn’t able to return to her home the RSPCA assessed the cat in order to find it a new owner, but discovered the animal had major cardiac problems.

It stayed at Tighes Hill for another eight months, until it was adopted by its new owner, who takes the cat to visit its former owner in hospital.

‘‘It’s the nicest ending, the best possible ending,’’ Pepperall said with a smile.

A little further down the hall are the two consulting rooms that the hospital’s 12 vets use to see private patients, as well as  the dog ward and cat ward where these animals stay when they need to be monitored or wait for surgery.

Dr Jamie Dumanas is preparing at the table where animals are induced for anaesthetic.

Dubbed ‘‘the guru’’, he has an interest in surgery and visits from Sydney two days each week to help with major surgery.

He performs about three major operations a week, with some taking up to five hours each.

Just a few metres away is the sterilised surgical area, the X-ray lab and the packs area, where surgical instruments are packed and sterilised.

A row of cages hold the slightly groggy animals recovering from surgery, including stray cat Mr Squishy whose left hind leg and tail were amputated after a car accident and five-month-old fox terrier cross Ruby, who has just been desexed.

Pepperall talks to staff about each animal’s ‘‘mum and dad’’.

‘‘The pets are the heart of the family these days and it’s like their hairy child,’’ she says.

Returning to the waiting room Carrington couple Gwen Storrie and Jannette Davidson are waiting with their ‘‘big ball of fluff’’, golden retriever Sasha.

The couple have owned their ‘‘baby’’ since she was six weeks old, when they had the first pick of a litter of six at Salamander Bay 12 years ago.

Sasha brings the couple and their neighbourhood much joy, but lately something has seemed not quite right.

‘‘She’s been huffing and puffing for a couple months and doesn’t want to walk anywhere, her legs just give way,’’ Davidson said.

‘‘We’re really hoping they can do something for her.’’

The couple spend about half an hour in one of the consulting rooms and leave with pain relief for Sasha’s sore hips.

The vet says her puffing is more likely the result of a paralysed larynx than any other sickness.

As they leave, a woman of about 60 rushes into the clinic, shaking and speaking breathlessly. She has a cage with her and says she has come for her cat.

‘‘I gave her up – but now I’ve changed my mind,’’ she said.

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