How Do Emergency Clinics Work?

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

If you saw a person fall down the stairs, what would you do? Dialing 911 is automatic during a crisis. But what should you do when the crisis involves your pet?

You call a pet emergency clinic number. You likely will not have the number memorized and it will definitely be more than three digits, so have the number handy. Tape it to the fridge. Save it in your cell phone. But where do you get that number? Ask for your veterinary clinic for it!

Emergency Resources

You carefully chose your veterinarian. You polled friends. You researched websites. You found a good fit for both you and your pet. You know what to do, where to go, and how much it costs for routine veterinary care. But do you know what to do, where to go, and how much it costs for emergency care? You do if you ASK. And your veterinarian is the best place to go for all of that information.

Ask your veterinary hospital how they handle after-hour emergencies. Some clinics have multiple doctors who share on-call duties on a rotating schedule. Other clinics refer emergencies to a 24-hour facility when their hospital is closed at night, on weekends, and on holidays.

"If your veterinarian refers after-hours calls to an emergency hospital, ask for the phone number."

If your veterinarian refers after-hours calls to an emergency hospital, ask for the phone number. Where is the emergency clinic? Does it have a doctor present 24 hours a day? Will he/she confer with your personal veterinarian regarding your pet’s condition?

Your veterinarian is concerned about your pet’s health all the time, even if he or she is not available all the time. Your pet’s doctor knows emergency hospitals are specially staffed and equipped for critical cases and may provide care that extends beyond the availability or capability of a general veterinary practice. Optimally, your pet’s doctor has planned how best to handle emergencies and established a relationship with a capable emergency hospital that will facilitate a seamless continuation of care at your regular veterinary clinic after the crisis has passed.

Getting There

You dialed the emergency number. Now it is time to get your pet to the doctor. This could be tough, because you may be upset over your pet’s condition. You may not be familiar with the clinic’s location. Your pet may be in pain or bleeding or vomiting or…who knows? Without an EMS team and ambulance available, you will need to transport your pet to the emergency clinic on your own. And you do not want to create additional injury (to the pet or to yourself) in the process.

Map out the best route in advance. Take a test drive so you become familiar with the route, day or night. Have a vehicle that will allow safe transport of your pet. A two seater convertible will not efficiently transport a Great Dane. An injured Labrador may not be able to jump in a truck. A scared cat running loose in the car can make the drive dangerous for everyone. It is best to have a pet carrier, appropriate vehicle, and willing assistant on hand.

Here are a few tips to make a trip to the emergency clinic a bit easier:

1. Stay calm. You are where you need to be. Skilled professionals will care for your pet.

2. Provide important information. Ask your regular veterinary hospital for an updated version of your pet’s medical records. Since an emergency clinic may not have access to your pet’s chart, it is important for you to bring along a copy. Be prepared to answer lots of questions. When was your pet injured? How long has she been sick? What home remedies did you try before calling the emergency number? Was she exposed to any poisons?

3. Be patient. It may take a while for the medical team to assess your pet’s condition. Besides doing a physical exam, the doctor may take radiographs and perform lab tests before they can devise a treatment plan or give you a prognosis.

4. Do not be afraid. Hospitals are scary. The sight of needles, tubes, and ventilators can be disarming. Remember that all the scary stuff is necessary to help your pet.

5. Have your finances in order. Medical care costs money. As part of your due diligence, you should already know the emergency facility’s payment policy. Have your pet health insurance card handy and know what your policy covers. If insurance is not an option, have alternate payment plans in place. Maintain a pet emergency fund. Most clinics accept credit cards and checks. Just make sure that you are not caught with a maxed out credit card and an empty checking account. When your pet’s life is in danger, you do not want the additional stress of inadequate finances looming over you.

6. Follow up with your regular veterinarian. The emergency doctor is a temporary fix. Your regular veterinarian is your pet’s primary care doctor who needs to be “in the loop”. Make sure the emergency doctor confers with your veterinarian regarding your pet’s condition and return to your regular veterinary clinic after your pet is stabilized for any needed follow-up care.

Call the emergency number if your pet:

  • Suffers any type of trauma (hit by a car or blunt object, falls more than a few feet)
  • Is non-responsive (will not wake up or appears dazed)
  • Is bleeding profusely
  • Has vomiting or diarrhea for more than 24 hours. Call immediately if the stool or vomit contains bright red or tarry blood.
  • Is straining to urinate or defecate
  • Has a seizure
  • Has trouble breathing or is choking
  • Is in extreme pain (shaking, moaning)
  • Becomes disoriented (tilts head, becomes uncoordinated, bumps into things)
  • Becomes paralyzed (cannot stand or move)
  • Has pale gums, weak or rapid pulse
  • Runs extremely high or low temperature

Dealing with pet emergencies is not as simple as dialing 911, so be prepared in advance. Know what number to call, where to go, and what to expect when you get to the emergency clinic. And have confidence in the people who will care for your pet.

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