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What You Should Know About Emergency Vets (Before You Need One)

Oh no … BLOOD! As Honey and I were walking down the sidewalk, I noticed her paw was leaving marks on the pavement. And our regular vet was hundreds of miles away. While Honey’s injury was clearly not life-threatening, it still needed care sooner rather than later, and that meant it was time to find an emergency vet.

While seeking care for Honey, I learned a lot about emergency vet care. Hopefully you’ll never need to know any of this – but if your pet gets ill or injured while you’re traveling, here are a few things you need to know.

Honey the golden retriever runs moments before hurting herself and needing an emergency vet.

I took this picture minutes before Honey hurt her paw. How did she hurt her nail on such soft grass?

Honey the golden retriever looking lovingly at her veterinarian with the text What You Should Know About Emergency Vets (Before You Need One) | GoPetFriendly.comWhat Is An Emergency Vet?

If your pet gets hurts or sick at home, you’re likely to call your regular vet. Of course, these thing rarely happen during office hours, and local veterinarians usually aren’t staffed around the clock. Some smaller practices network to provide after-hours care or partner with larger emergency providers, so be sure to ask what your vet recommends in the event you need pet care in the middle of the night.

Getting help at home is one thing, but if your pet gets injured while you’re traveling, you’ll want to find a nearby pet ER. Emergency medicine for pets is as sophisticated as the care available to humans, but there are more types of emergency vet providers. Here are some of the different ways emergency vets practice:

Full-service Veterinary Clinics

Some veterinarians provide a full range of routine care (wellness exams, vaccinations, minor surgeries, etc.) and also offer emergency care. Often, they are open only during normal business hours, but many have an on-call veterinarian who can meet patients after hours.

A full-service emergency provider can also provide follow-up care to your pet during their recovery.

Honey the golden retriever with a bandaged paw after her emergency vet visit.

It was an exciting morning. When we got home from the vet, Honey was glad to recuperate on the boat.

After-hours Veterinary Hospitals

Many emergency veterinary hospitals do not provide routine vet care – all their patients are urgent cases. These hospitals are generally open when regular veterinarians are closed for the day, and are often available 24-hours on weekends and holidays.

The care received here is triage – they stabilize and treat pets before referring them back to their regular veterinarian for follow-up care.

Honey the golden retriever shows the plastic bag on her bandaged foot.

Honey wore a “boot” made from a plastic bag to keep her bandage dry. She doesn’t look very happy, does she?

24-hour Emergency Vet Clinics

Some round-the-clock veterinary clinics provide routine services, and others have only specialists who treat the most injured and sickest pets in consultation with your pet’s regular veterinarian.

A few decades ago, this kind of care was only provided in veterinarian teaching hospitals, but now there are 24-hour emergency veterinary clinics in every part of the country. Some large cities have several, and a few even have ambulance services to pick up injured or ill pets.

Honey injured her paw early on a weekend morning, so I searched for veterinarians in the Hampton Roads area on and found an office near the marina where Honey and I had been staying. Thanks to a pet-friendly cab driver, I didn’t have to carry Honey the three miles to the vet!

Honey the golden retriever walks the dock with a plastic bag on her bandaged paw.

Do you think Honey hated the “boot” so much because she felt unfashionable in the marina?

What Emergency Vets Need You To Know

Emergency veterinarians operate a little differently than your home veterinarian. Here are a few tips to keep you from being surprised:

Call First

Even vet offices open 24 hours prefer you call before you arrive. In a life-threatening emergency, it gives them time to prepare. If you need to stop bleeding or induce vomiting in your pet and time is of the essence, the emergency vet will walk you through it on the telephone.

Some vet offices even have special equipment to help move a large, injured dog from your car to their office without hurting them more. Calling first means they will be ready as soon as you drive up.

Be Prepared to Pay

Emergency veterinary care is not cheap.

In these special circumstances, the fees you’ll pay to have your pet evaluated and treated are higher than at your regular veterinarian. To avoid sticker shock, a member of the staff will usually talk to you immediately about the estimated costs, and will ask you to sign paperwork stating that you agree to pay for your pet’s care. They may even require a deposit before beginning treatment.

When the only thing you can think about is the well-being of your loved pet, it can feel hard to talk about money, but emergency veterinarians don’t have the relationship with you that your regular vet does. And sadly, people take pets in for critical care just to abandon him or her rather than paying an expensive bill.

So be prepared to have a difficult talk about money as your pet is being whisked in for care.

Honey the golden retriever sits pretty at the vet office.

Healthy and whole once again, Honey visits her regular vet for her annual wellness appointment.

Sickest Pets See the Doctor First

Honey’s injury was simply a broken nail resulting from an earlier injury to her nail bed. Nail injuries bleed a lot, but I’ve never known a dog to die from one. So, while Honey was in some pain, her ailment was not serious.

As a result, Honey was the last patient seen as the busy staff helped other families with sick pups first. Like in a human trauma unit, emergency vets make sure the most seriously sick or injured pets get treated first.

It can be hard to wait a long time for a veterinarian to see your ailing pet, but keep in mind that if your pet is waiting for the doctor, it means she is stable enough to not need immediate attention.

Some Veterinarians Prefer to Treat Your Pet Without You Near

In most emergency clinics, your pet will be rushed into a back room where the vet and technicians will provide critical care. But will the vet allow you to stay with your pet when the major crisis is over?

After the veterinarian saw how far back Honey’s nail had broken, he wanted to take her into the back to cut it the rest of the way and bandage her paw. I replied that I preferred to stay with her, to which the doctor warned me that cutting the nail would hurt her. It was obvious the vet was worried that I would feel distressed by seeing Honey in pain. Or that I would be in the way.

I reassured the doctor that I knew Honey would yelp. I also understood he would need his technician to restrain her so she wouldn’t pull away, but I knew Honey would feel more relaxed with me at her side. He agreed and I stroked Honey’s ears and spoke gently to her while the vet worked on her nail. Yes, she cried once. But I know she was more relaxed with me nearby.

If an emergency vet wants to separate you from your pet, try to anticipate their objections. If you can see the situation from her point of view, you’ll be more likely to convince them that your presence will help your pet.

Honey the golden retriever loves her vet Dr Armao.

We’ve been lucky to find good vets since we’ve been cruising. But we return to New York every year for Honey’s annual wellness visit with Dr. Armao.

Have Medical Records Handy

Some veterinarians allow clients to access their animal’s records electronically. Before you’re facing an emergency, see if your vet offers this service – you may be able to set up a login name and password to give you instant access to your pet’s medical history at any time.

Honey’s regular veterinarian does not give access to her records electronically, so I keep a paper file of all her information handy. I had it with me when the vet treated Honey’s paw.

Luckily, Honey is a healthy pup and I didn’t have a long list of medications or conditions to keep track of, but if your pet has chronic conditions, create a file on your phone to share with a vet in an emergency. And don’t forget to ask the emergency vet to forward their records to your regular veterinarian!

What Is An Emergency?

When your pet becomes sick in the middle of the night, it can be difficult to decide whether you should wait until your regular vet opens, or seek care right away. It’s even harder to know what to do when you’re traveling.

A call to an emergency veterinary hospital is one way to have a trained professional help you make that decision.

Most vets agree that certain conditions are too risky to wait before seeking treatment. These include:

  • repeated vomiting or diarrhea, especially if you see blood
  • seizures
  • avoiding food or water for a full day
  • being in a traumatic accident or being attacked by another animal
  • swallowing a foreign body
  • difficulty breathing
  • abdominal bloating

Any item on this list can threaten your pet’s life, and you should take your pet to the veterinarian immediately.

Honey the golden retriever considers jumping off the sailboat onto the dock.

Honey’s not sure about the big jump off the boat at high tide. Is a big jump even scarier than being carried around with a hurt paw?

One of my greatest fears is that Honey will injure herself or get sick while we’re anchored away from shore or underway. Living on a boat and not owning a car, routine medical care is challenging enough without the stress of an actual emergency. So, I’m actually relieved to have this minor emergency behind me. I learned a lot about what to do in a serious emergency to get Honey the care she needs.

If you’re planning a trip with your pet, think about emergencies as well as fun. While you’re reserving a pet-friendly hotel room or campsite, look for local veterinarians. Save their number on your phone, and have a plan for what you’d do if your pet got sick or inured.

Hopefully you’ll never need an emergency vet while traveling – but if you do, planning ahead will make an emergency less stressful.

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  • We’ve been in similar situations, and sometimes that’s the best you can do! Calling the emergency hospital before you leave may also help – if there’s something you can do to help you pet (induce vomiting, or administer medication for example), they can walk you through it. Here’s hoping it’s never necessary!

  • The nearest real emergency vet to our marina is 53 minutes by car (which we do have). In a true emergent situation we’re going to drive as fast as possible to them. All of the vets “in town” are open really short hours and can’t provide real emergency care anyways. Let’s hope I never have to put this plan into action, but their address is saved to my phone and we do have electronic vet records.

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