EAST MANATEE -- The next time a Manatee County human and his or her furry companion are hurt in a car accident or suffer smoke inhalation in a house fire, there's a good chance both will get on-scene emergency medical care and an ambulance ride.
East Manatee Fire Rescue and a local emergency veterinary ambulance service will begin working together to save the lives of injured and ailing pets whose owners have been rendered incapable of helping their furry -- and even feathery or scaly -- best friends.
Cheryl Brady, a former East Manatee volunteer firefighter and owner of Vet Care Express Animal Ambulance, has reached an agreement that East Manatee's first responders will call her 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help injured pets who cannot get the help they need from their injured or incapacitated owners.
While county emergency medical technicians do carry special oxygen masks for cats and dogs and have, on occasion, performed canine CPR, they can't do first aid for an injured animal, nor are they allowed to transport a pet to a veterinary hospital.
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"Now we've closed the gap and tapped into a resource that's been there," said East Manatee Deputy Chief Lee Whitehurst. "I'm not really sure why this didn't happen earlier on."
Instances of emergency response to human and pet injuries are becoming more common. Whitehurst said Manatee emergency responders once did CPR on four dogs at once, and have treated many cases of pet
smoke inhalation at house fires. Bringing in Brady's service is a natural, he said, since providing care for an injured pet "begins the healing process" for a worried and hurt owner.
Brady, who runs her two-ambulance service with the help of a couple of employees and a small network of volunteers, brought her pet referral idea to a meeting of all Manatee County's fire chiefs about a week ago. East Manatee is the first to commit, but she expects others to follow.
"They agreed it makes sense," she said.
Since starting operations in 2010, Vet Care Express has transported about 3,400 pets, from a tiny hamster to its largest client so far, a 250-pound bull mastiff. Brady said she started the business after spending decades working in the corporate world, most recently as a business development executive for Office Max. She said she felt a need to help, a feeling she only partly assuaged as a volunteer firefighter.
When a friend called her one day for help after hitting a dog with her car, Brady, a pre-vet major in college, rushed to the scene. The dog died in the accident, but Brady wondered what she could do for all the pets who could be saved in a medical emergency. That's when she came up with the idea to run a pet ambulance service.
The service proved popular, so two years ago she bought a surplus ambulance from Sarasota County to go along with the Dodge Sprint she had been using. Vet Care Express is now profitable, she said, and is growing. Brady expects to strike up agreements with other fire and rescue services in the county to use her services for emergency pet transport.
Company ambulances are outfitted with pet-sized gurneys, backboards and first-aid equipment. In an emergency situation, pets can be delivered to any one of five late-hours and 24-hour vets she partners with. Vet Care Express also offers non-emergency transport services for pets who need to get to rehab appointments or to and from surgery.
During a run this week, a company ambulance brought a 90-pound yellow Lab with a broken leg home from surgery. The dog's owner chose to use Vet Care Express because an ambulance ride was more comfortable than a drive in her Mini Cooper.
Ambulance service prices start at $30. A late-hours, emergency run costs $125.
Brady said she expects demand for emergency pet transport to grow. According to the most recent Census Bureau statistics, 37 percent of U.S. households include dogs and 32 percent include cats. Pet owners are "very passionate" about their animal family members, Brady said, and want them to get the best medical care possible.
Bringing emergency vet services to an accident scene or a home is not just a convenience, but can mean the difference between a pet that recovers from an injury or illness and one that must be euthanized because prompt care wasn't available.
"We've definitely saved a lot of lives," Brady said. Pet owners who are capable of assisting pets on their own in the wake of an emergency to which fire and rescue respond will generally be encouraged to do so. First-responders will provide contact for Vet Care Express if capable pet owners want to use the service. More information about Vet Care Express is available at vetcareexpress.com.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.