Vet Talk

Five Top Tips for Surviving or Avoiding the Veterinary ER

Veterinary emergency visits are rarely pleasant for man or beast.

Published: September 16, 2013

I’m the guy you don’t want to meet in the middle of the night. I am not a mugger, a thief, or a cat burglar.

I am an emergency veterinarian.

Most of my interactions with pet owners end with them saying something like “Nice to meet you, thanks for helping Fluffy, I hope I never see you again.” Not because I lack social skills, or have a crummy bedside manner (I hope), but because veterinary emergency visits are rarely pleasant for man or beast.

Here are the top five things that you can do to either stay out of the ER or survive a visit intact.

1. Be patient: There’s no way to predict how many folks are having an emergency at the same time you are. You may get there and be 10th or 12th in line. Patients are seen in the order of their medical need, not in the order they get there. It’s not a deli. You may see several cases that arrived after you that get examined first; this only means that these pets can’t wait for medical attention.

Bring a good book and don’t let the wait get to you. Ask to wait in the lobby rather than the exam room; ten minutes in those cramped rooms can stretch time, and the lobby usually offers TV, soda and other pet owners to swap stories with.

2. Ask the right questions: You have the right to ask about treatment options, costs and prognosis. Along with this right comes the responsibility of asking the important questions first and making note of the answers.

3. Save up or get insurance: By far the biggest hurdle in emergency medicine is cost. Medical expenses for emergency room visits can run into the thousands (the highest veterinary bill I have ever seen was around $22,000), but this is a tiny fraction of what your bill would be for a similar visit to the human ER. When insurance pays for most of your ER costs, you may only be a few dollars out of pocket. Insurance for pets is now a reality, and there are several pet insurance companies competing for your business. I have seen many lives saved when insurance took the financial sting out of a big veterinary bill. You may pay the same amount to the insurance company in premiums as you pay to the veterinary emergency room, but $30 bucks a month for three years hurts a lot less than a 1,000 dollar lump sum.

If you look into it and decide that insurance is not for you, it would be a good idea to set aside some money every month to go into a rainy day fund for those unexpected ER trips. If they never happen, you can always buy that collection of Precious Moments figurines you’ve had your eye on.

4. Be prepared: You can turn the odds in your favor by being prepared for the unexpected. There’s a good chance it will happen: most pets will make at least one trip to the veterinary ER during their lifetime, so it is best to know where your local ER is located before the need arises.
When you go out of town, make sure your pet sitter knows how to contact you, knows your pet’s medications and knows how far you would like to go with regards to your pets’ care. A letter giving them treatment authorization will also go a long way towards making the whole experience go smoothly.

5. Practice preventive and protective medicine. Vaccines and spay/neuter decisions are hot topics right now. From an ER perspective, though, there are a few points that everyone should follow:

  • If you have a dog less than 2 years of age, get him vaccinated against parvovirus: The benefits of ‘puppy’ shots for prevention of this deadly virus are clear. Most cases of parvovirus are preventable and can costs upwards of to $2,000 to treat.
  • See your veterinarian at least once a year for a physical and lab tests: Lab tests can help spot problems before they develop and become more important as your pet ages. If you have several years of normal lab tests, you will also have a baseline ‘normal’ to refer to if problems arise.
  • Pay attention to your pet’s weight, eating and drinking habits. Just a few extra pounds can rob your pet of years of good life! The good news is almost every dog loves a walk, and this is a great way for both ends of the leash to drop a few pounds. Conversely, unexplained weight loss can be a symptom of something bad brewing, and this sign warrants some diagnostic testing. If your pet starts drinking more water or urinating more, this could be a sign of several conditions, such as diabetes or kidney failure.
  • Use a leash, keep cats indoors and dogs fenced in: I think good fences make not only for good neighbors, but healthy pets as well. Keep tight control on your dog at all times (even the best trained dog can dash into traffic when seeing their sworn arch enemy – the squirrel). An indoor cat is far more likely to live late into her teens than an outdoor cat.
  • Pet-proof your home: Dogs and cats explore everything and assume the world is edible unless proven otherwise. Keeping medications and poisons where pets can’t reach them is a cheap and easy way to make sure you and I never get acquainted.

    With a little bit of planning, a bit of luck and a bit of preparation, you can minimize the chance that we’ll meet in the ER. Don’t worry – you won’t hurt my feelings!



    John Ferrell
    December 9, 2016

    I like that you said to ask the right questions. I think that if you know what you are talking about, then your animals operation will go a lot smoother. I think that new pet owners might benefit from knowing what to ask and how to respond.

    Kendall Everett
    May 27, 2016

    Being prepared for a possible veterinary ER visit is a good idea. As you mentioned, having a letter of authorization for treatment if you are away is a great way to make the process smooth. It might also be a good idea to see if the pet sitter has any pet emergency response training for emergencies.

    McCall Hazelton
    January 22, 2016

    There are lots of things you can do to prevent a vet emergency, but sometimes, things just happen. Knowing the places you can go in case of a situation like this is a really good idea. A better idea is to even build a personal relationship with the doctors at the pet hospital, so you know you can trust them in the case of an emergency with your pets life.

    Dr. Tony Johnson 
    September 24, 2013

    Thanks for sharing your comments, everyone. Karey - some cats transition very well to an indoor (and much safer) existence after being outdoors, and some won't have it. They may become destructive or start urinating inappropriately. It depends on the cat and how the transition is handled.  You'll know if it won't work. I think it would only be cruel if they are forced to live in a situation that doesn't suit them. As to dog parks, when I was in veterinary school, I thought they were a great idea - dogs and their owners could exercise, get some fresh air and companionship.  Then, it got ugly when I started treating the victims... To see how I really feel, read this:Dog Parks: Danger Unleashed

    September 20, 2013

    A good Emergency Room Veterinarian is worth their weight in gold. One thing your article didn't say tho is that the Dr. is human too so anger over the bill is short sighted & beyond the Dr.'s control. It's always difficult, I'm sure, to present a large bill especially to people on a fixed budget. However, the human being on the other side of the exam table sees this every, single day - has empathy & knows your pain - so please treat the Dr. with respect and caring in a situation already difficult from crisis. I'm just sayin'

    Karey Manuel 
    September 17, 2013

    After your cat has been outdoors, then you try to keep them in, is that cruel to the animal?  Also what are your feelings on dog parks? Thank you.......

    Valwynn Kinghorn, RVT 
    September 17, 2013

    Great article! Great insight and my passionate wish is for everyone to heed your points and use 'common sense' Then a trip to the emerg vet and me (Registered Veterinary Technician) could be avoided.


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