What to Expect at the Emergency Vet

A primer on what to ask and what to do next during a trip to the veterinary ER
By Naomi Strollo, July 2018, Updated June 2021


You wake from a deep sleep to the sound of your dog vomiting, or crying in pain. Or you’re having a quiet Sunday night in and your dog has a seizure, or can’t stand up, or doesn’t seem to recognize you.

Nothing is more heart-pounding than realizing that, without warning, your dog has suddenly become ill. You frantically call your trusted veterinarian’s office, but it’s closed, and the recording refers you to an after hours emergency clinic. On the way to the clinic, you realize that this veterinarian won’t know your dog, or have access to his records. And the staff won’t know that your dog takes a little coaxing to get on the scale, or that he doesn’t take treats from strangers.

Upon arrival, you see a number of other people and their pets in the waiting room. Panic immediately sets in: What kind of emergency clinic makes people wait? 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. Are they really making you wait? A few minutes go by, then a veterinary technician approaches, asks for more details about your dog and his 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 a few minutes?

As traumatic as a veterinary emergency clinic can be, this is a commonplace scenario. Emergency clinics are very busy at night and on weekends. There are no appointments, and the “first-come, firstserved” policy doesn’t apply. Patients are triaged, and the most critical go first.


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When it’s his turn, your dog is 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 his regular vet? If I take him home, what should I watch for? What symptoms would indicate that I need to bring him back?

Owners sometimes get upset when 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.

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 with whom you’re sharing the space; they’re as anxious and concerned as you.

Financially, it’s often just as traumatic. It’s wise to ask for an estimate before agreeing to a care plan. 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.

Be aware of your financial options before agreeing to have everything done immediately. 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 his regular vet. Traumas and illnesses don’t resolve in 24 hours, and the vet and vet techs don’t have magic wands that miraculously fix the problem. Recovery takes time.

Depending on the diagnosis, consider requesting that your dog be transferred to a Board Certified Veterinary Specialist, 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 it’s no reflection on the vet to ask for this. General practice and emergency veterinarians understand and treat multitudes of illnesses, but for complicated cases, many will recommend a specialist without being asked.

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 veterinarian’s office as soon as it opens 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 that.

All pet owners are grateful that there are emergency clinics … and most are equally anxious to avoid visiting them. However, life is unpredictable and being informed will make the experience a little less stressful.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 94: Summer 2018