What To Expect When You Take Your Cat To The Emergency Vet

A sick or injured cat needs vet care whether or not it’s after hours or a holiday, so use these tips to be prepared for a trip to an emergency vet.

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An emergency vet won't have access to your cat's medical records, so bring as much information as possible about your cat's past health history. pyotr021/iStock/Thinkstock
Dr. Brian Roberts

So, it’s Sunday late afternoon and you are getting ready to have friends over for the big Sunday night game. You’re going in and out of the house, getting the charcoal on the grill, the cooler stocked and everything else ready. During this pre-game frenzy, “Snowball,” your 4-year-old cat, gets out through the open back door. No use chasing him, he’s too quick and scurries under the fence. The kids are crying, your wife is screaming at you and football is now the last thing on your mind. As you run down the street, you see something along the side of the road. Your heart drops because it’s Snowball, and he’s been hit by a car!

While I hope this story is not familiar to you, it’s one I’ve heard a few times from pet owners. Maybe it wasn’t about getting ready for a football game, but they all shared a familiarity of the indoor cat getting out of the house. For cat lovers and caretakers, there’s nothing worse than having a major problem with your pet during times when your family veterinarian’s office is closed. This article is meant to prepare you, as best as possible, for a very difficult and emotional event.

Be Prepared For A Cat Emergency

As a cat lover and owner myself, I know it’s important for the family to be informed and know what to do in case of a pet emergency. Use this checklist to get prepared.

1. Manage Medications And Food. Make sure to refill all prescriptions your cat uses a day or two before running out, and keep at least a two to three day supply of cat food on hand at all times. Don’t wait until the last minute to refill a prescription, as the unexpected can happen and leave you without any medication. For example, you go to the pharmacy and they tell you that the bottle says “no refills,” or they’ve run out of the drug or no longer stock it.

2. Make Calling Easy. Have the emergency veterinarian’s phone number handy, in easy to find places like on your smartphone and your fridge.

3. Keep Info Handy. Have a copy of your pet’s medical records ready to go, especially if she’s being treated for a specific condition, like diabetes. If you don’t have an updated copy, at least make sure to list all of the medications that your cat may be taking, plus the amount and the frequency of administration. That way you can tell the emergency vet staff details like,“Snowball is diabetic, he gets three units of Glargine insulin twice a day.”

4. Stay In Touch. If your cat is in someone else’s care, make sure they can contact you: With email, texting and social media, there’s little excuse to not be able to communicate.

Also make sure you’ve worked out how the care is to be paid for. This situation happens all of the time: A friend is caring for a cat while the owner is away. The cat gets sick and the friend goes to the emergency vet, who recommends tests and treatment that cost “X” amount, but the friend can’t afford it or doesn’t want the expense. Now the vet can’t do much except provide life-saving measures, and there’s a delay in treatment.

5. Have A Plan For Transport. Cats have a very active stress response! Despite your trying to help them when injured, they may bite or scratch from fear and pain. The best way to transport an injured or sick cat is to (1) wrap them in a towel, like a swaddling a baby, or (2) use a cat carrier with a removable top or a laundry basket to place them in during transport.

Back to Snowball: You scoop him up, run back to the house, jump into the car and rush to the vet. Well, it’s Sunday at 7 p.m. The vet is closed and there’s a number on the office door for the local emergency vet. You call and drive another 15 minutes to a different clinic. While Snowball is taken into the treatment area for the vet to check him out, you are asked to fill out multiple forms and sign things. All your concern is for Snowball, so you fill out and sign everything without paying too much attention. So when the receptionist asks you for a $100 exam fee, it’s quite the surprise, even though it was stated five times in the paperwork you signed.

Luckily, Snowball will be OK. The emergency vet examined him and is treating him with intravenous fluid therapy and pain medication. He’ll have some blood tests and radiographs (X-rays) performed to look for internal and bone injuries. The emergency vet will call you later with those results and, if nothing significant is found, you should have him back home by morning.

Taking Your Cat To An Emergency Vet

Some of the delay and surprises can be avoided if you know what usually happens when a pet goes to an emergency vet, so let’s review what happens.

1. Call Ahead. Let them know you are coming. The staff will likely ask you a few questions about the illness or injury, so that they can be prepared when you arrive. For example, if your cat is having difficulty breathing, the emergency room will likely have oxygen and breathing tubes at the ready when you arrive.

2. Have Your Cat’s Health History. Bring any copies of records you may have and any medications your cat may be taking.

3. Bring Your Wallet Or Purse. I can’t tell you how many times we would care for an injured pet, only to be told by the client, “I rushed so fast out of the house, I forgot my wallet. I’ll be back later to pay you.” While, as veterinarians, we trust our clients, some never return with payment in these situations. When they call or do return, then there’s usually a heated discussion about costs. Unfortunately, veterinary medicine is a business. There is a lot of overhead to run a veterinary ER. Staff, equipment, medications and utilities. If everyone forgot their wallet, the emergency vet would quickly go out of business.

4. Be Ready For Paperwork. Expect to fill out registration forms and paperwork giving permission to examine and treat. Most emergency vets also ask for a “resuscitation code.” If your pet stops breathing or they suffer cardiac arrest, would you want the ER team to perform CPR? I know you are probably thinking, “What a stupid question, of course I want them to try to save my pet.” But, what if your cat has terminal cancer, is suffering and the treatment is no longer working? Would you still want the ER team to perform CPR?

5. Accept That There Will Be A Wait. Expect to wait, which is actually good news for you. The longer you must wait, the less likely your pet has something life-threatening. Emergency vets operate similar to our human ERs — patients with more serious injuries or illnesses are seen first, even if they’ve just arrived and you’ve been there for 45 minutes. Deciding the seriousness of injury or illness is termed triage, and the emergency vet staff will perform this once you arrive with your pet.

6. Yes, It Costs More. The emergency vet will be more expensive than your family veterinarian. As I mentioned, there are a lot of costs to operating an after-hours and weekend ER. Nurses and doctors are paid more to work nights, weekends and holidays. Tests, medications, surgery and other treatments will likely cost a bit more, too. Most emergency vets will give you a written estimate of the costs and have you leave a deposit of a portion or the entire estimate BEFORE they will officially admit your pet.

7. Give Accurate Contact Info. Make sure the contact information you provide is accurate, and that you or someone who can authorize treatment is reachable at any time. Serious injuries and disease can result in rapid decline, where a “stable” cat quickly becomes unstable, and you need to be informed.

8. Plan For A Transfer. Many emergency vets are only open after hours, weekends and holidays. So, even if Snowball needs continued care on Monday, the emergency vet likely will be closed from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. You will need to be able to get Snowball on Monday morning and take him to his regular vet for continued care. I’ve seen emergency vet admission handouts that state that if your pet isn’t picked up and transferred before the clinic closes, no one will be there to care for them until they reopen at night.

Well, I hope Snowball’s story is not a familiar one for you and never happens to any of your cats. Please use these tips or, at the very least, program the emergency vet number into your phone.

Article Categories:
Cats · Health and Care