Getting into the garbage and eating what they shouldn’t. Getting bit by a wild animal. Or, Lord forbid, getting hit by a car and seriously injured.
Many scary scenarios may require emergency vet care. If your dog has an accident after-hours, it’s important to know:
- Whether to go to the ER
- Which veterinary hospital to choose
- What tests are necessary
- If the bill is reasonable
They’re important questions you may be too panicked to consider in the moment. That’s why we talked to Dr. Erin Smythe of the Pet Emergency and Specialty Center of Marin to the get the inside scoop on how to handle a medical crisis when it comes to your pooch.
When to go to the Emergency Vet
Our furry friends are typically very stoic when it comes to illness. They can’t tell us what hurts, so if you’re not sure how serious it is, it may be better to be safe than sorry.
“As a general rule, if you’re worried enough to be thinking about bringing your pet to the ER, it is probably warranted.”
“As a general rule, if you’re worried enough to be thinking about bringing your pet to the ER, it is probably warranted,” Dr. Smythe says. “The vast majority of owners do not have veterinary training, so differentiating between benign symptoms and critical symptoms is not always straight-forward.”
At the very least, you’ll have peace of mind knowing your dog is okay. The alternative could leave you second-guessing your pet parenting choices.
“If an owner brings their pet in at a very advanced stage of their condition or when it is too late, it can be devastating,” Dr. Smythe adds.
Choosing a Veterinary Hospital
When an emergency arises, you don’t want to waste precious time googling emergency veterinary care. That’s why you should have a designated emergency hospital.
“When you have a true emergency, you can focus on getting your pet immediate care, not looking up directions,” Dr. Smythe says.
Research 24-hour veterinary hospitals in your area and choose one preferably close by since your furry friend’s condition can worsen on a long drive.
“If a pet is truly in critical condition, the best ER clinic is the closest one.”
“If a pet is truly in critical condition, the best ER clinic is the closest one,” Dr. Smythe says. “Even animals that owners may not perceive as critical could be pushed over the edge by a long, stressful car ride to a distant ER clinic.”
Ask your regular veterinarian for recommendations. Typically, general-practice vets have relationships with a local emergency clinic they trust—this information can usually be found on their after-hours voicemail, on the front door or lobby of the office, or simply by asking.
Is That Really Necessary?: Tests and Procedures
In emergency situations, you often find yourself in an unfamiliar hospital with a veterinarian you’re meeting for the first time. It can be hard to know for sure all the tests are necessary and the price of services is fair, but the vast majority of veterinarians have your pet’s best interests at heart.
“All veterinarians took an oath to practice medicine conscientiously and ethically,” Dr. Smythe says. “Medicine is a complex science and our primary goal is preservation of your pet’s health and welfare—a veterinarian would never recommend a test or medication that was unnecessary.”
That being said, most veterinarians are also very thorough, offering what Dr. Smythe calls “the ideal gold standard of care.” But there are instances where various approaches can be taken to reduce the potential cost of services.
“For example, hospitalization versus outpatient care or thorough blood work versus more focused blood work,” Dr. Smythe explains.
In an ER environment with minimal background knowledge on your pet’s overall health, doctors may need to run additional tests to get a more thorough picture of what’s at play. Working with an ER hospital that partners with—or ideally doubles as—your normal vet can minimize this need.
“Having a single veterinarian who really knows your pet, knows their medical history, knows your family, and is able to provide continuity of care is such an important part of your pet’s medical management,” Dr. Smythe adds.
Is the Price Right?
Most people who visit a veterinary ER can be astounded by the bill. There are a lot of variables that go into the cost of services, including:
- Diagnostics and treatments recommended
- Whether a specialist is going to be performing a procedure
- Level of intensive and advanced care provided
- Geographical location
What about different price tags from hospitals in the same city? This author has experience in this department! We brought our dachshund mix Yellow Dog into the ER with a fever and body shakes at midnight; the suggested tests would run us $1000, just to figure out what was wrong. We gave him fluids, stabilized his temperature and shakes, and took Yellow to our regular vet in the morning, where he underwent emergency surgery for a blocked intestine to the tune of $1900 out the door. We shudder to think what surgery would have cost in the ER, but Dr. Smythe offers a reasonable explanation for the cost differential.
“In this situation, it sounds like one clinic recommended a relatively thorough work-up before making the call to go to surgery, where the other clinic felt it was appropriate to go straight to surgery,” Dr. Smythe estimates. “Sometimes a clinical picture that was cloudy in the beginning becomes a lot more clear after a few hours.”
While most vets don’t offer payment plans, financial assistance, or price matching, it never hurts to be up front with the ER hospital about what you can afford. Discussing your budget allows them to customize a treatment plan to meet your pet’s needs and not break the bank.
“If it is appropriate for the situation, most veterinarians will work with owners to tailor a diagnostic and treatment plan that can work within their budget and still provide an adequate level of care for their pet,” Dr. Smythe adds.
Getting the Right Diagnosis
Perhaps more frustrating than getting a steep bill is getting a steep bill and no diagnosis. Sometimes, the hospital just can’t figure out what’s wrong.
“The symptoms may be very vague and don’t necessarily point to one body system or condition,” Dr. Smythe explains. “And sometimes an animal has a very complicated condition that is difficult to understand even with a very through work-up.”
In these situations, it’s very important to know your pet’s medical history. Since dogs can’t tell us what they ate or what happened a few days ago, veterinarians rely on pet parents to provide clues.
“But sometimes we aren’t given any clues and just have to go searching,” Dr. Smythe explains. “These cases can be very frustrating for both owners and veterinarians.”
Top 3 Tips for a Seamless Visit to the Emergency Vet
What can you do to make the ER experience easier for you and your pet? Dr. Smythe offers these crucial tips:
- Know your pet’s medical history—what are their chronic conditions? What medications are they on (dose, how many times per day)? How long have they been feeling sick?
- Provide pet sitters or daycare providers with medical information/history and your wishes for care. “Sometimes a pet sitter is not able to get in contact with an owner and things become very complicated,” Dr. Smythe adds.
- Have realistic expectations, like wait times. “There is often a lot going on behind the scenes caring for sick in-hospital patients and if a critical/unstable patient walks in, he will be seen before all stable patients,” Dr. Smythe explains. “If your pet was in critical condition, you would expect the same.”