Dealing With Pet Health Emergencies

Having a plan in place for pet health emergencies — and knowing who or when to call for help — can save you precious time when trouble strikes.

Dealing with pet health emergencies
Have an emergency plan in place for your pet. By: Andrew Ciscel

Do you have an emergency plan in place if your pet is in critical shape?

Check out this story about an owner who panicked (with good reason) and ran to a vet’s office that had posted “emergency care” on the building. The dog was refused treatment and the owners had to scramble to find emergency help. The moral of this story? Know what to do when your pet has a medical emergency.

Thank goodness the bug-bitten Zooey is okay! This veterinary staff was in the wrong. They need to learn what “triage” means.


Have any of you ever sought medical help at a human emergency room? To put it mildly, it often ain’t fun. But unless it’s the worst hospital in the world, a nurse usually evaluates you ASAP, and determines the seriousness of your medical condition. This is triage. Are you critical or stable, acute or non-acute? You may still sit in a waiting room with a broken arm while the guy with the gunshot wound is stabilized, but this is inconvenient for you, not life-threatening.

I remember a very long night in a New York City ER with my grandmother, whose wrist was in pieces. We sat for three hours as the life-threatening traumas were seen before us. At least my Minny was triaged, found to be stable, and we waited while critically ill people were seen first.

In the case of poor Zooey, who was going into anaphylactic shock, the veterinary staff used extremely poor judgment. A staff member should have evaluated him and found a veterinarian to assess his condition. The veterinarians, if I’m reading the story correctly, never even knew they had an emergency patient in the building! The hospital is at fault for this debacle, if the dog was in critical shape as reported. (Boxers and brachycephalic dogs, particularly pugs, are more at risk for severe allergic reactions.)

The story concludes that the clinic removed the words “Emergency Care” from the sign outside. This doesn’t solve the problem. Even if you don’t advertise yourself as an emergency veterinary clinic, if you are open and a vet is in the building, I think the vet is responsible for triaging critical animals. Do what you can to stabilize the animal and refer it to a critical care facility if necessary.

Triage, stabilize, and treat or refer. Your sign out front doesn’t change this primary obligation to the animal.

Owner Panic

By: Brownpau

I want to encourage all pet owners to refine their own emergency response plan.

It sounds like these owners assumed this hospital was a good choice for a pet health emergency because of a sign they had seen on the building. This was a mistake. If you haven’t been to a particular veterinary hospital before with an emergency, call ahead. It sounds like these owners did call ahead, and were told not to come, but they showed up anyway.

Even if you are headed to an established, familiar, 24-hour facility, it’s a good idea to call and say you’re on your way. Assume you are upset. Maybe your cat is breathing funny or maybe your dog was just run over by the neighbor. In any case, now is a bad time to be looking up phone numbers, getting directions or going to hospitals where you are not a client. Have a clear plan in your head.

The State of Veterinary Emergency Care

In the past 10 years, much has changed in emergency medicine. Many more communities have the benefit of a 24-hour veterinary emergency facility nearby.

In the old days, most veterinarians carried a beeper after hours. An owner had to call the hospital, leave a message, or talk to an answering service and hope for a quick response from his or her vet. This, clearly, was not the best of situations if you had a life-and-death emergency and the vet didn’t get back to you immediately.

Today, many private practitioners stop seeing emergencies after hours and refer to a designated 24-hour emergency hospital — if there is one within a close distance. Become familiar with how your veterinarian handles emergencies. It may save you precious time when your pet is in trouble.

What to Do First in a Pet Health Emergency

  1. If you are alone and your pet is in serious condition, try to call someone or round up a neighbor. If the situation is not critical, take a deep breath, find your phone and call the vet first.
  2. If you jump in the car headed to an emergency facility, make sure you have your cell phone with you. You may want to call family members, your own veterinarian, etc.
  3. Try to have someone else go with you to the hospital.

These steps may seem incredibly simplistic, but they can save you a lot of frustration and give your pet the best chance of getting quality care quickly.

Think about this for a moment. What if you, yourself, were having a medical emergency? Would you get in the car and drive to your regular doctor’s office? Not likely. You either call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room or critical care center.

Well, many regular veterinary clinics are not set up to see an emergency, just like some small physicians’ offices. If you call ahead, you will save precious time and the veterinary office should be able to guide you to get your pet to the best place, or tell you to come down immediately.

Life-Threatening Emergency

If there is a 24-hour emergency facility within 30 minutes of you, you should know about it and know how to get there “in your sleep.” Keep the number on your cell phone or posted in plain sight.

Acute Care or Advice Needed

Don’t jump in the car before calling the vet if your pet is not critical. Pick up the phone first. Maybe your regular vet is available and can see you. Maybe not. By driving to the clinic unannounced, you might be disappointed. Think of these possible scenarios:

  • Maybe your vet is closed Wednesday afternoon and you forgot what day it is.
  • Maybe it’s lunchtime and your vet is at the supermarket. You rush to the office, only to find that the hospital must call the vet and ask him to return to the office immediately. Had you called ahead, the staff could have given the vet a head’s up to leave his groceries in the cart and get back to the office to meet you.
  • Maybe it’s after hours and you need to reach your vet by beeper. Even if your vet is “old-school” and offers emergency care after hours, don’t drive to the hospital without calling first. She might be in a restaurant at 8 p.m. and not hanging out at her hospital. CALL AHEAD.
  • Maybe after triaging your pet over the phone, the receptionist can come up with a better plan. If your pet isn’t critical, the hospital can give you an actual appointment rather than have your pet hang out in a waiting room, getting more stressed.
emergency form for pets
Click to download a print-friendly version of this form.

Pets Adviser has put together a handy emergency-contact form for pets. Just print out this PDF, fill in your contact numbers and tack it to your fridge.

My Home Sweet Hospital

Because my veterinary practice in Pelham, MA, is in a big barn behind my house, many people think I live, eat and sleep there 24/7/365. Although it may feel like that’s what life is like from time to time, I do leave the compound occasionally. Here are a few memorable drive-by emergencies:

  • CHRISTMAS NIGHT, sometime in the early 2000s: A new Christmas pocket pet was mistaken for a sofa pillow and sat upon. People are screaming and crying on my porch and beating on the doors. Luckily, I am home, serving Christmas dinner, and able to help the somewhat flattened Christmas rodent.
  • Veterinary emergency drive slowly
    Please do not uproot the gate outside my clinic.

    JULY FOURTH WEEKEND, sometime in the ’90s. We come home from a weekend away and don’t have to get out and undo the chain at the foot of the driveway — because someone drove through it in a panic, ripping the chain, pole and concrete footing out of the ground. Years later, a client told me, “Oh we came on July Fourth once, but you weren’t home. The dog had diarrhea. He got better.” Thanks for telling me. I guess you didn’t have some quick-mix concrete in your car that day to, you know, put my pole back in?

  • SUMMER, most decades: “We found this box of kittens.” I think, “Really? Where? Under your own cat?” Most of the time, I am annoyed but glad to take in the kittens. If the people are overwhelmed and underfunded with a box of unwanted kittens, I can always find good homes for them.

The best “gross-out” drive-by was during regular hours. A good client was running his dog in the woods, and something untoward happened to the dog’s tongue. That’s correct: The dog lacerated a large portion of his tongue on something in the woods. There’s a great deal of blood supply in a dog’s tongue, particularly a 100-pound Golden Retriever’s big fat tongue.

My waiting room looked like a Quentin Tarantino set when Hobart ran in, wagging tail and almost-missing tongue. It was his owner and the people in my waiting room who needed shock treatment! (Tongues are very forgiving and heal quickly. Hobart was fine within a few days.)

Let’s hope emergencies are few and far between for you and your pets this year. But in the event of a serious situation, HAVE A PLAN!

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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