What To Expect When You Take Your Dog To An Emergency Vet

Someday you might need to take your dog to an emergency vet, and knowing what to expect can let you focus on your dog.

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Pets at an emergency vet are seen based on the severity of their illness or injury. Monkey Business Images Ltd/Monkey Business/Thinkstock
Dr. Brian Roberts

Hello, dog lovers! Recently, my family’s 2-year-old terrier mix named Trixie became ill, and I found out the hard way. I awoke around 5 a.m. to her whining, so I reluctantly got up and tromped downstairs to take her outside for a walk. On my way to get her, I heard her retch and gag, followed by a “splat.” Uh oh. Upon taking her out of her crate, I found a fresh pile of foamy, yellow liquid, and there were white, dried foam spots on her bedding. That meant this was not just one episode of vomiting, but many. She was a little more quiet than usual. I didn’t think she was too dehydrated, but her abdomen was a little tender.

Anyone who has a terrier knows that these little dogs are like vacuums. Trixie is very quick to grab something off the ground during her walks, and she’s more than once been caught eating out of our cat’s litter box. Yes, I know, YUCK!

I cleaned her up, took away her food, replaced her bedding and then had to go off to lecture. I warned my wife that if Trixie continued to vomit, she would need to be taken to the emergency veterinarian because it was the weekend. During my morning lectures, my phone was going crazy with messages and missed calls. “Trixie is still vomiting, I guess I need to take her in.” The rest of my day was filled with meetings, so I contacted the emergency room and made arrangements for Trixie to be seen. It was just as we suspected: Trixie had gastroenteritis, likely from eating weird things (cat poop!), and she just needed symptomatic treatment that involved medication, plus a bland diet, to stop her vomiting.

As you can see, a problem with your pet can arise at any time and can be something not too serious — or something life-threatening. To prepare you for these situations, here are some things to know and have ready if you need to take your dog to the emergency vet.

Be Prepared For The Vet ER

1. Call ahead. Calling notifies the emergency vet about your dog’s problem. This allows the staff to prepare, if necessary, for your arrival. For example, if I receive a call that a dog is on the way in because of trouble breathing, my staff and I make sure to have supplemental oxygen, breathing tubes in case we need to secure the airway, and an IV prepared to be placed.

2. Bring medical records. Having copies of your dog’s medical records, or someone available to discuss your pet’s health history, helps. Maybe you are on vacation and a pet sitter is watching your dog. That person is not too familiar with your dog, so before you leave, print out a synopsis of your pet’s history.

3. Bring medications or info. Any drugs or supplements that your pet takes should be brought along. Otherwise, know the drugs, their strength and the frequency that they are being given. Regardless of whether the emergency is related to your pet’s need for medication, it is very important to inform the emergency vet about medications.

4. Get help with transport. If the emergency is traumatic, such as your dog being injured as the result of getting hit by a car, you may not be in the best condition to drive. Ask a family member, friend or neighbor to help. The last thing anyone wants is for someone to get in an accident on the way to the emergency vet.

5. Keep in communication. If you are out-of-town, make sure the person(s) who is caring for your dog can contact you anytime, anywhere. With today’s technology — smartphones, email, social media, etc. — it’s easier than ever to be reached.

6. Bring your ID and wallet. Even if your wallet is empty (like mine usually is!), bring it with you. Most emergency vets will require a deposit to provide continued care. Luckily, most also work with short-term medical lenders like Trupanion and CareCredit, so even if your wallet is empty, you can apply to get the medical care financed.

Arriving At The Emergency Vet

1. Expect assessment. The emergency vet staff will ask you some brief questions like “What is going on with Rover?,” and then will likely have a veterinary technician or other support staff member get vital signs. Dogs with abnormal vital signs, difficulty breathing, trauma, bleeding and severe dehydration will be attended to immediately. The most serious cases will be treated first, regardless of the arrival time of other pets. So, if your dog is vomiting and lethargic, and then a dog arrives who was hit by a car, the second dog will get treatment first.

2. Fill out forms. If your dog is being seen by the emergency vet and has never been there before, you will be asked to complete admission forms, permission to examine and treat forms, CPR forms, etc. Take a few minutes to read what they ask you to sign.

Answer the questions honestly. In general, veterinarians will not judge you. Don’t say your dog is currently vaccinated when he isn’t. Don’t say your dog gets heartworm prevention if you forgot to give it for the last three months. All of that information is very important. Our concern is your pet, not to make you feel guilty that you haven’t kept up with vaccine recommendations. I can tell you many, many stories about dogs who got into illegal drugs, toxins and other medications, and the owners were not forthcoming. How am I supposed to treat a dog who ate a tray of “pot brownies” when the owner says, “Well, I just found him lying there in his own urine”? Not only will getting the information allow the emergency vet to properly treat your pet, it will also likely save you from the emergency vet running a slew of tests that could have been avoided had the whole story been told.

3. Expect fees. No doubt, the emergency vet will be more expensive than your family veterinarian. There’s a lot of overhead to maintain an ER, including stocked medications, staff, utility bills, monitoring equipment, blood analysis machines, etc. Most staff are paid more to work there, because there are a lot of night and weekend shifts to staff.

4. Ask for written estimates. You should be provided with a written statement of the costs of fees, tests, treatments, medications, etc. This is done to make sure you have been properly informed of what is to be done and what it will cost you.

Admission To The Emergency Vet

1. Yes, you will wait. You may elect to wait while diagnostics, such as blood tests and radiographs (X-rays), are being performed. Expect to wait at least an hour for lab tests and X-rays, and for the veterinarian to discuss those results with you. So bring a book or make sure your smartphone is charged. The business of an emergency vet is unpredictable. Typically, weekends are very busy, especially Sunday afternoons. Please don’t get upset when you see a dog covered in blood treated ahead of your vomiting dog after you’ve already been there for an hour. Just be thankful that your dog is not the one being rushed to the treatment area.

2. Think about transfers and visiting. Because many emergency vets are open when your family veterinarian is not, and they are not open during regular business hours, be prepared to transfer your pet the next weekday morning. Discuss visiting hours and best times to get an update on your dog. I made it a point not to tell owners specific times when I would contact them with updates or information, because I could never be on time, due to the nature of the practice. It was common for me to tell clients to call us in an hour or so to get an update.

3. Expect shift changes. Modern emergency vets will have a number of doctors and nurses working shifts. If you bring your dog in on a Saturday afternoon, it’s likely that a different veterinarian will be caring for him on Sunday night.

My hope is that you never have to take your dog to an emergency vet, but if you follow these tips, it will make a difficult experience a bit more tolerable.

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Dogs · Health and Care