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What to Expect At the Emergency Vet

It's every pet parent's nightmare — but knowing what happens when you take your dog to the ER can make the experience a little less stressful.

by Naomi Strollo, RVT
November 23, 2021
A dog getting checked out at the vet
Danil Nevsky / Stocksy

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You wake from a deep sleep to the sound of your dog vomiting or crying in pain. You frantically call your vet, but they're closed, and the recording refers you to an after hours emergency clinic. Upon arrival, you see a number of other people and their pets in the waiting room. Panic sets in: How long is this going to take?

You go to the counter and blurt out why you’re there, and instead of being whisked back into an exam room, you’re handed a clipboard and asked to fill out a form. A few minutes go by; then a veterinary technician approaches, asks for more details about your dog and their symptoms, and does a brief exam. You’re told that your dog is stable enough to wait with you. How could that be determined in just a few minutes?

As traumatic as a visit to an emergency vet clinic can be, this is a common scenario. Emergency clinics are very busy at night and on weekends. There are no appointments, and the “first-come, first served” policy doesn’t apply. Patients are triaged, and the most critical go first. If you've never been to the emergency vet before, it can be a nerve-wracking experience and you probably have a lot of questions. Here's what you can expect.

Will I be able to stay with my dog the whole time?

When it’s your dog's turn, they're likely to be taken back into the treatment area without you. There are a few reasons for this: Other pets are being treated and the staff is concerned for their welfare. Also, the treatment area can look chaotic and messy to clients — but to the six to eight vet techs and the veterinarian staffing it, it’s organized, set up to allow the vet to examine your dog, give orders, and move on to the next patient in the most time-efficient manner. The staff isn’t hiding anything — they’re just working quickly.

When your dog is returned to you, you’re likely to hear the treatment options from the vet tech, who’s relaying information provided by the veterinarian. Yes, you’ll eventually speak to the vet, but remember: If the vet isn’t immediately talking to you in person, that’s a good sign, because the most critical patients get attention first. Now’s the time to ask lots of questions: How critical is this? Can I safely wait to take my dog to our regular vet? If I take my dog home, what should I watch for? What symptoms would indicate that I need to bring my dog back?

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What if my dog needs additional testing?

People sometimes get upset when they're told that X-rays and blood work are needed. “My dog just had that done a few months ago,” they say. Unfortunately, tests done a few months ago don’t explain the cause of a current illness. However, there’s nothing wrong with asking why the various tests are needed. You can also request that they do one test at a time; it may be that one test will provide an answer and further testing won’t be needed. Also, telling a vet or vet tech that you want the best for your dog but would prefer that your regular veterinarian handle as much of the care as possible will not offend them.

How much does an emergency vet visit cost?

Financially, the cost of treatment can be as traumatic as the illness. You’re paying for treatment at an after-hours clinic that specifically handles critical situations. There aren’t many alternatives, and there’s no time to comparison shop. Fees are going to be high and, depending on how critical your dog’s condition is, the price can be jaw-dropping.

Ask for an estimate before agreeing to a care plan. In an emotional state, it can be hard to think logically, but do your best. Before signing the estimate, ask what you are signing. You should receive a breakdown of suggested tests and treatments. When presented with a list of options, ask what each one is and if it can wait until you can take your dog to their regular vet.

How can I stay calm?

A trip to an emergency clinic can last for hours, and much of that time is spent waiting. Tempers may flare, but getting angry will not get your dog examined faster. Think of all the traumatic cases that are routinely seen in an emergency clinic: hit by car (HBC), attack by dog, dystocia (difficult birth), hypoglycemia, respiratory distress, heart failure, diabetic crisis. Have compassion for those around you — they’re as anxious and concerned as you are.

What if my dog needs to see a specialist?

Depending on the diagnosis, consider requesting that your dog be transferred to a Board Certified Veterinary Specialist; these are vets with advanced education in areas such as internal medicine, ophthalmology, cardiology, dermatology, behavior, dentistry, nutrition, critical care, and many others. Both your regular veterinarian and the emergency veterinarian will have a list of the specialists in your area — and don't worry, your regular vet won't be offended if you take your dog to one. General practice and emergency veterinarians understand and treat a variety of illnesses, but for complicated cases, many will recommend a specialist without being asked.

How do I let my regular vet know what's going on?

After a visit to an emergency clinic, it’s a relief to walk out with your dog by your side. Though it’s an emotionally draining experience and you’d probably like to just kick back for a bit, call your vet as soon as they open, and let the staff know what’s going on so they can follow up and continue the care plan if needed. Ideally, the emergency clinic will already have provided your vet with a record of the visit, including diagnosis, tests, and treatments, but it never hurts to confirm.

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Naomi Strollo, RVT

Naomi Strollo, RVT, is Fear Free certified and has worked in the veterinary field for more than two decades.