Vet Talk

Get off the 'Net and Phone a Vet

For urgent concerns, don't email or text: speak to a live person

Published: May 18, 2015

 If you have an urgent veterinary question because you're worried about why your dog has bloody diarrhea or your cat has curled up in a ball and yowled non-stop for the last hour, get off the Internet and phone a veterinarian. Don't email, text, or message on Facebook: dial the phone and speak to a live person. Now.

Veterinarians see this all too often. Worried people send questions to veterinarian's website or Facebook page, but no one at the clinic has time to monitor those questions.  Sometimes the questions are along the lines of:

Q: Is my tulip plant only toxic to my cat if it's ingested or will she get a reaction from just rubbing on it?
A: The toxic part mostly is the bulb and eating the bulb. Cats rarely do that. Rubbing the plant may cause itching at worst as long as the cat doesn't chew it.

Q: Can you tell me how long it takes for results from a culture and sensitivity test for bacteria in a dog's nose?
A: It depends on how many organisms grow and how fast they grow. It could be as short as two days and as long as a week.

Voila! Simple question, simple answer, client knows more, veterinarian has warm fuzzies from helping pet owners. Piece of cake. 

Some veterinary sites offer free question and answer services, but they are not a good idea for time-sensitive questions. That is actually a bad idea that can have some depressing results. Most organizations with a free service do not answer questions in the middle of the night or during Sunday football games because the people who answer those questions aren't at work.

In order to tell you what might be wrong - give a diagnosis - the vet must be able to see and touch the animal, and sometimes give diagnostic tests such as skin scrapes, blood tests, and x-rays. That can't happen over the Internet.

This service is not only not helpful but also unrealistic and downright dangerous when your question is urgent. If your cat has managed to roll around in the dryer for a bit with your undies, phone the vet to let them know you're coming in NOW and jump in the car and go there right this minute. Trauma, burns, and heat stroke are possible consequences, even if the cat looks unharmed, because these injuries aren't readily apparent. Even one whirl around the dryer can crack a rib.

Many brick and mortar facilities are staffed 24/7 and will tell you if it sounds like you can wait for your clinic to open or if you should come in now. Any local ER doesn't mind at all if you call to ask a question.

If your question is about poisoning, the ASPCA's ASPCA's Animal Poison Control and the Pet Poison Hotline are open 24/7. Of course, that's one of the reasons they charge for each call.

Veterinarians regularly get electronic urgent questions that to them seem to have an obvious answer, but they answer them anyway (more tactfully than the following, of course).

Q: My iguana fell off the bed onto his back and now he can't walk. What should I do?
A. Get him to a vet immediately.

Q: My dog was hit by a car and is screaming and can't get up although I don't see any blood. He bit my hand when I reached for him! I don't have a car and whatever it costs, I can't afford it because I'm on a fixed income. What can I do to help him at home?
A. Get him to a vet immediately; if you can't afford treatment, take him in for euthanasia to eliminate his suffering.

Q: My 12-week old puppy has been really sick at both ends since last night, and now his poop has blood. I can't believe how much is coming out! What do you recommend?
A. Get him to a vet immediately. Any puppy that is vomiting and has diarrhea may have life-threatening parvovirus. Even if you think he's been vaccinated, he may not have received the entire series.

Q: My pregnant daughter was petting a dog that looked like he had some kind of bloody maggot in his side. Please tell us immediately if she needs to be seen by her physician right away. Help us, she's pregnant!
A. Sorry, veterinarians cannot advise on human health; we don't treat that species. Have her contact her physician or the CDC

All of these questions are real ones sent to veterinarians; they are not made up.

If you need information quickly, then get it quickly: get off the 'net and phone your vet or an ER, whoever is open. Don't wait for a service that gets to you when it gets to you, no matter how good it is. Ask the right people at the right time before too much time slips away, and your pet (and wallet) pay the price.

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.