Any trip to the emergency room is daunting and stressful, but when it’s your pet who’s sick, it seems twice as nerve-wracking. Although everyone hopes they never have to make a visit to the veterinary ER, odds are your pet will require emergency services at least once in their lifetime.
When an emergency arises, time is of the essence. You may need to make quick decisions under very stressful circumstances. Unfortunately, when adrenaline kicks in, the brain’s ability to process new information is diminished – so while your body is pumped and ready for fight-or-flight, the decision-making center of your brain goes into standby mode.
That’s why it’s so important to think about an emergency plan BEFORE you find yourself in a medical crisis situation with your pet.
Choosing the Best Emergency Services
A highly-rated veterinary emergency hospital can literally mean the difference between life and death for your pet. Here are some factors to consider when choosing a good veterinary ER:
1. Look for a hospital that is accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA).
This is a voluntary program that has strict requirements for patient care, client service, and medical protocol. Only about 15 percent of small animal practices in the U.S. are AAHA- accredited, so don’t worry too much if there isn’t one near you. But if you have a choice, it’s best to choose a hospital with this affiliation. You can use the AAHA-Accredited Hospital Locator to find the one nearest you.
2. Consider proximity.
In an emergency, the less time it takes you to get to the hospital, the sooner your pet will receive the critical care he needs. In some situations, every minute counts.
3. Confirm that the facility is open and fully-staffed 24 hours per day, 7 days a week.
Just because a clinic says that it has “urgent care” for pets does not mean that it’s open around the clock. Also, confirm that the hospital has at least one veterinarian and several technicians onsite at all hours so there is always someone there to triage emergencies.
4. Tour the hospital.
Many hospitals are happy to give a tour of their facility and let you meet their staff. When touring, take note: Are the waiting room and exam rooms clean? If not, it’s likely the back areas of the hospital may not be clean either. Inquire if it’s possible to see all areas of the hospital, including treatment areas and cages.
Ask if they use Registered Veterinary Technicians. Is the staff professional, courteous, and do they treat patients with care and affection? What diagnostic equipment – MRI, CT scan, ultrasound, etc. – is onsite? (The latest technology can usually ensure a more accurate diagnosis). Is there an isolation area? How about an Intensive Care Unit? Are there surgical specialists available who can perform emergency surgery or orthopedic procedures?
5. Ask about payment policies.
Does the hospital provide a thorough estimate up front, before services are performed? You can also inquire about accepted forms of payment, whether the hospital allows for payment plans, and if they accept pet insurance.
Prepare in Advance
Once you’ve chosen a veterinary ER, there are several additional things you can do ahead of time to be better prepared for emergencies.
- First, contact your regular veterinarian’s office and ask them to fax your pet’s medical history (including vaccination records, previous x-rays, and blood test results) to the emergency hospital. Also have them send a copy to you. This could save valuable time – and money – down the road.
- Next, create an “emergency packet” that you can grab quickly before going to the emergency room. The packet should contain contact information for your regular veterinarian, a list of medications your pet is taking, his vaccination records, pet health insurance info (if you have it), and contact information for another family member or friend (in case, heaven forbid, something happens to you).
- Keep the phone number of the emergency hospital saved in your phone, or somewhere in your home or car where you can easily access it. (It’s a good idea to have the ASPCA poison control hotline number – (888) 426-4435 – in your phone as well.)
- Consider pet insurance, if you don’t already have it. Although some pet insurance companies don’t cover pre-existing conditions or certain procedures, it might be worth the expense. Shop around to see which plan is best for your pet. You might also consider investing in your pet’s health by opening a special savings account for veterinary expenses.
- Lessen the chance of having an emergency by making sure your pet has regular veterinary checkups. Prevention is key to treating any abnormalities before they turn into something worse, like injury or disease.
- Lastly, if an emergency happens, be sure you know the exact route to the hospital (you can even map it into your map app or GPS ahead of time). Remember to bring an ID and a method of payment (cash, debit, or credit) with you.
Navigating the ER Experience
If you’ve ever been to the veterinary ER, you know how stressful it can be. You’re already worried sick about your pet, but on top of that, you’re also dealing with the emotional stress of wanting to make sure you’re making the right medical and ethical decisions while considering your financial situation and what you can afford.
This is the conundrum many pet parents face, and there is often much guilt experienced in this scenario. Please don’t let this overwhelm you. Although you may be faced with several difficult choices, there are some things to keep in mind that may help.
First, it’s true that veterinary emergency care is expensive. There are many costs associated with 24-hour staffing, insurance, and maintaining the latest diagnostic equipment, medications, and technology. That being said, however, you do have some control over the charges that are incurred while you’re at the veterinary ER.
Be clear and upfront with the emergency veterinarian about your need for information, not just about your pet’s condition and proposed plan of treatment, but also on the proposed cost of that treatment. Once your pet is stable and safe, ask for a detailed estimate BEFORE any additional diagnostic tests are run.
Unfortunately, if a pet parent is in a situation where they simply cannot afford thousands of dollars in treatment costs, it can lead to what is termed “economic euthanasia” – where the difficult decision of euthanasia is ultimately made based not on the medical condition of the pet, but simply on the prohibitive cost of medical treatment.
This tragic situation might be avoided by pet parents being knowledgeable about what questions to ask. I think that perhaps because emergency hospitals have all these wonderful diagnostic tools at their disposal, occasionally some may have a tendency to overuse them – which could lead to certain estimates for treatment being overly-aggressive.
Dr. Krista Magnifico, small animal veterinarian and author of the blog “Diary of a Real-Life Veterinarian”, recently shared 2 pieces of advice regarding emergency visits that I believe are extremely sound. She advises clients that 1) If there is a diagnostic test that will lead to an untreatable diagnosis, skip it; and 2) Run tests for the treatable and most likely scenarios, then work with the veterinarian to scale the quote to be appropriate to your case, your pet, and your budget.
And as always, don’t be afraid to ask your veterinarian questions. If there’s something you don’t understand, keep asking questions until it makes sense. You are your pet’s advocate, and you need as much information as possible in order to make decisions that may ultimately be difficult ones.
An Ounce of Prevention…
The goal, of course, is to never have to utilize your emergency plan… but accidents and health crises do happen. If you take the time to prepare in advance, you can act quickly, calmly, and confidently in the event of an emergency.
Also, thinking ahead now, while things are calm, to difficult decisions you might be faced with in a stressful emergency situation allows you to process those thoughts more clearly, hopefully reducing some of the on-the-spot stress if you are ever faced with an unexpected trip to the veterinary ER.
What are your thoughts on the veterinary ER experience? Do you have any additional tips to share? Please let us know in the comments below!