Tips to make an emergency clinic visit less stressful

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No one ever wants to be the one taking their pet to the emergency clinic. During a recent relief shift at a local veterinary emergency clinic, I decided to compile some tips that could help decrease some of the stress, should you find your pet needing after-hours care.  We are fortunate in the Charleston area to have several great emergency facilities available for our pets after regular business hours.  The level of care you’ll find from these enthusiastic doctors and technicians working in a state-of-the-art 24-hour facility when your pet has a serious sudden illness can greatly exceed the care that I was able to provide after graduation while providing “on-call” care for a small animal practice in rural Georgia.  As excellent as that care is and the comfort you can take in knowing your pet is in the right place, seeing your pet sick and in the hospital can be stressful.  

Here are some tips to make your emergency clinic visit less stressful and more successful:

  1. If your pet has a chronic illness, grab his/her medications as you head out the door. 

    Unless your pet has been a direct transfer to the emergency clinic from your regular veterinary clinic or has been seen at the emergency/specialty center in the past, the emergency clinic is likely not going to have copies of your pet’s records from your regular veterinarian.  This includes any medications, any previous laboratory work, and any history of preventative care (vaccinations, heartworm testing, etc.).  I jump with joy when a client starts bringing out her pet’s pill vials from her purse during the exam, as I now know that I am not going to be prescribing any medication that could have a drug interaction with the pet’s usual medications.  Bonus points if you can keep a folder handy with recent laboratory results too, as this could possibly save you some money in diagnostics to be completed.  If laboratory work is determined to be needed to be repeated, those copies of past lab work can also serve as a vitally important baseline to help determine the severity of your pet’s current illness and aid in establishing a prognosis for further treatment.

  1.  Don’t give any medication before arrival without talking to the emergency clinic staff first, even if it is labeled “over the counter”.

    The biggest culprit is usually aspirin; owners seeing their pet in discomfort try to make their pet comfortable by administering an aspirin first and then decide later to take their pet to the emergency clinic when the pain still persists.  I have had a pet present for a mild lameness of minimal concern, only to have to hospitalize her for a potential ibuprofen toxicity secondary to the advil the owner gave the pet at home to to try to help with the limp.  The most frustrating aspect about these human pain medications is that they can have potentially harmful side effects when combined with medications that we would routinely use in the emergency clinic for pain treatment.  Therefore, my treatment options for making your pet comfortable become immediately limited, and I also have to worry about any adverse (especially gastrointestinal) side effects that an aspirin given at home may cause.

  1.  Please, please, please don’t lie!

    I understand that people don’t lie to be mean.  They know something happened at home (the pet ate something dangerous, someone accidentally stepped on the puppy, etc.) and they are embarrassed or afraid to let the veterinary staff know.  Your veterinary staff understands that accidents happen in the home.  Their main goal is to get your pet diagnosed and comfortable as quickly as possible, and the pets can’t talk to us to tell us what medication they got into and ate 30 minutes prior to when you found them sick at home.   Withholding information can be dangerous (and expensive!), because it can take me down the wrong track of accidentally misdiagnosing your pet.

  1.  Keep your pet’s preventative care with your regular veterinarian up to date.

    Over the past six months of emergency clinic shifts, I have treated dogs with deep bleeding wounds secondary to flea infestations, have had to euthanize dogs in congestive heart failure due to heartworm disease, and had to hospitalize lethargic and dehydrated puppies due to having a high burden of intestinal parasites.  All three of these diseases are caused by parasites and are able to be prevented by a variety of parasite preventatives sold by your regular veterinarian at a much cheaper price when administered prior to clinical signs starting.  Another disease commonly diagnosed in the emergency room is parvo virus.  This highly contagious virus can be deadly to puppies.  Treatment in the emergency clinic can be easily over $1,000.00, but the preventative vaccination can be started at your regular veterinarian for under $30.  Spending a little bit of money on preventative care can easily save you hundreds of dollars in the future.

  1.  Come prepared to pay the bill.

    This is always the most delicate subject when I speak with my clients in day practice about the benefits of sending their pet to the emergency clinic for overnight care.  Usually, I am asked if the visit will be “expensive”.  I suppose it all involves how you look at it.  Many clients today are demanding human grade diagnostics and care for their sick pet members.  Veterinary emergency clinics are able to provide something very comparable to human care at an absolute fraction of the cost.  So, a life-saving surgery that might cost my husband $50,000-$100,000 in hospital bills may only cost $3,500-$5,000 for your dog.  This is actually pretty amazing to me.  Still, we all understand that $3,500 can be difficult/impossible for some to acquire in a weekend.  Without the government assistance or health insurance agreements that human hospitals may receive, veterinary clinics must require funds up front at the time of service.  There really is no other way they can operate, pay their hard working staff, pay their overhead, and stay in business.  Acquiring pet insurance while your pet is healthy (before the emergency) is a great idea.  I tell clients you should either do that or (if you are a good planner with excellent self discipline) store a set amount each month in a bank account of some form to save for such an emergency.  If you are going out of town and having a pet sitter watch your pet, arrange an emergency plan with the sitter concerning who is permitted to make medical decisions and payments, should your pet become ill.

I have been asked by some why I continue to relinquish a valuable weekend to go in to work these emergency clinic shifts that can run into the late evening.  The answer is that I love it!  The doctors and technical staff that I have the pleasure to work with there are so skilled and passionate about their jobs that I believe experience alongside them make me a better practitioner while at my day job.  I hope you never need to go to the emergency clinic with your pet, but should you, I hope the advice in this blog help make your visit a little a smoother.

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Janette Blackwood, DVM at Charleston Harbor Veterinarians

Janette Blackwood, DVM

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