When veterinary nurse Niccole George heard the sobs on the phone, she felt incapable of doing her job because the collapsed Great Dane's owner was too frail to bring the dog to her.
That was the phone call that inspired George and her partner Gareth O'Connor to start PetMedics, a 24-hour pet ambulance service for pet owners unable to get their animals to help when an emergency arises.
Advertisement"I had felt so bad for her and wished there was something that I could have done," George, 24, told AFP of the Great Dane.
"So that's where it all came from. We knew there was a market for it and we knew a lot of people needed that service and it was a way we could help out."
With financial support from a non-profit organisation for young adults the couple bought a van. But they had to be more innovative when it came to equipping the vehicle with pet-sized medical tools.
O'Connor drafted in a box-making company in Melbourne to make a pet stretcher using thick tarpaulin, while George flew to the United States to pick up an oxygen chamber from an emergency veterinary conference.
Resuscitation devices were easier to acquire, as only the connections were different from those used for humans.
By the time the service, which generally charges an 85 Australian dollar (59 US) call-out fee, was ready to roll late last year, all that was needed was demand.
George and O'Connor said the round-the-clock service has been busy despite the global financial crisis, which has seen some pet owners abandon their furry friends or cut back on veterinary care as the credit crunch bites.
"In the first months, it was one or two calls a month. But in the next few months, it increased. Now we get over two calls a day," O'Connor said.
In the last six months, Australia's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) has recorded an almost 100 percent increase in the number of dogs and cats surrendered at its south-west Sydney shelter compared to the same time last year.
"We have had an increase of people stating that they are surrendering their pets as they have to make a choice between feeding and caring for their human family and their animals," shelter supervisor Karen Schlieper said.
Despite the impact of the credit crunch, the trend towards personal pet care -- reflected in the emergence of day spas and other luxury treatment for dogs in Sydney -- still points towards a change in the way Australians view their pets, said veterinarian Dr Katrina Warren.
"Pets used to be outdoor animals and dogs used to run the streets and the backyard and cats used to do what they wanted, whereas now pets are definitely a lifestyle decision," Warren said.
"They are often substitute children, they are definitely treated as part of the family. And now that they are accepted as part of the family we absolutely spoil and treat them."
George and O'Connor have witnessed the extent to which pet owners -- one in three Australian households has at least one pet -- become attached to their animal friends.
Often the ambulance is called by owners who are so upset about their sick pets they are unable to drive it to an animal hospital or even explain what is wrong with it.
"Sometimes we get there and they can barely speak, they can only point and we go and help their pet," O'Connor said.
While most of the pets George and O'Connor transport are dogs, cats and birds, the company has also received distress calls to save more usual pets such as a chicken, a goat and a turtle.
George said she believes it is the alienation that some people can feel in an urban environment that makes pets so popular.
"I think pets are for a lot of people that consistent source of affection and loyalty." she said.
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