Emergency Room Etiquette

Bringing your pet to the emergency is always stressful. Your animal is sick. You are scared and your stress level skyrockets. A trip to the emergency room with a distressed fur baby is simply never fun. Just as parents must always be prepared with children, so too must pet parents always be ready to make the inevitable trip to the emergency room. In an effort to reduce your anxiety level during an emergency visit, below are some insights to help make your visit as smooth as possible.

Call the emergency room prior to arrival if possible…

If your pet is experiencing an emergency, you need to seek immediate medical attention for him/her. That is common sense, right? You need to bring your pet to the emergency room as soon as possible. With that being said, it may be quite helpful for you to contact your local emergency hospital prior to leaving or at least while in transit to the emergency room. Providing the emergency team with your estimated time of arrival (ETA) can be quite helpful, especially if the emergency room is very busy!

By calling ahead, the hospital’s emergency team may also be able to give helpful advice for your pet, including techniques for:

  • Controlling bleeding
  • Covering / protecting wounds
  • Stabilizing a fracture (broken bone)
  • Safely transporting a patient with a suspected or known back injury

If your pet has ingested a possible or known toxin, please bring the packaging of the toxic substance with you to the emergency room. When you call the emergency room about a patient with potential toxicity, the emergency team should recommend you contact an animal poison control hotline like the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center. Board-certified veterinary toxicology specialists run this toxicology center, and the input from these specialists can be truly invaluable. Although there is a nominal fee for this service, you will be provided with a very important case number that you can then give to the emergency room doctor so s/he can continue to consult with the board-certified toxicologist to make sure your pet receives the most appropriate medical care.


Drive quickly but carefully to the emergency room…

I recognize pet parents want (and need) to get to the emergency room as soon as possible. Understandably they have a tendency to drive like a proverbial bat out of hell, potentially endangering them and their sick pet, as well as other drivers and pedestrians. Pet parents get into serious motor vehicle accidents in transit to the emergency room because they drive too quickly. I have had a paramedic team transport a dog to my emergency hospital, reporting the animal’s owner was severely injured in a car accident on the way to the hospital and concurrently transported to a human emergency room. You are not doing your pet any favors by driving unsafely to the emergency room. Arrive alive!


Not first come, first served…

Veterinary emergency rooms are typically busy places, especially in metropolitan communities. Cats are always sustaining fight wounds in territorial conflicts. Labrador Retrievers are always eating items they shouldn’t. Simply stated, the poop always tends to be hitting the proverbial fan. Some pets are also sicker than others, and for this reason, pet parents must realize animals that are presented to an emergency room are not evaluated by the emergency doctor in the order the pet came through the door. Rather they are evaluated in order of medical priority, and the emergency team, not by a pet’s family, determines this medical priority.

Patients are seen in order of medical priority as determined by the medical team.

What does this mean to you? It means if you bring your Cocker Spaniel to the emergency room for itchy ears that have been itching for three weeks, the emergency doctor will absolutely be happy to evaluate and help your dog. But if a dog that has been hit by a car is presented while you and your dog are waiting to be seen, that traumatized dog will unequivocally be seen before your itchy fur baby. Please don’t interpret this policy as ambivalence about a dog’s itchiness, but rather recognize pets with potentially life-threatening injuries must always receive priority.

Be financially aware…

Discussing finances is never fun, especially for veterinarians. We honestly loathe the topic of money because we always tend to get yelled at unfoundedly by pet parents. The truth of the matter is running an emergency room is an expensive undertaking. Many facilities are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, and overhead expenses are significant. The medical equipment needed to provide the state-of-the-art care pet parents have come to expect in the United States is costly. What does this mean to you? It means a visit to the emergency room is going to be more expensive than a visit with your pet’s primary care doctor. An emergency surgery will be less financially friendly than the same procedure performed with your family veterinarian (IF s/he is comfortable performing such a surgery). This is the very reason veterinarians promote preventative healthcare so heartily. Preventing a medical or surgical problem is honestly often cheaper than dealing the problem once it has reared its ugly head!

Believe it or not, veterinarians did not go into veterinary medicine to make a lot of money. The average starting salary of a veterinarian is $65,000 while the average debt for a recent veterinary graduate is $150,000. The debt:salary ratio that reportedly should be 1:1 for any profession is a ridiculous 2.3:1 for veterinarians. Thus telling a veterinarian that s/he is only “in it” to make money is not only untrue, it is also both insulting and exceedingly hurtful.

Don’t be mean…

As I stated earlier in this post, a trip to the emergency room is always stressful. But for reasons that escape common sense, occasionally that stress turns people into insufferable beings. Fear and anxiety are powerful emotions, and many folks simply don’t know how to cope with them. As a result, these people often are verbally (and occasionally physically) abusive, rudely abrasive, and behave with a seething sense of entitlement. I guarantee this is not helpful. Not. At. All.


Emergency room teams have one goal, one singular (and occasionally impossible) objective: to provide your pet the best possible emergency care. These teams work tirelessly to make your pet feel better, to keep you informed every step of the way, and to maximize the likelihood of your pet making a complete recovery. Antagonizing emergency team members through unjustifiable cussing, ridiculous posturing and/or verbal (and physical) threats does nothing to help your pet’s emergency team achieve its central goal.

The take-away message…

You never want to bring your fur baby to the emergency room. Inevitably, however, a trip to an urgent care facility will be needed at some point in your pet’s life. You should call the emergency room immediately prior to or at least during transit to the hospital, as the emergency team may be able to provide some helpful techniques to help your pet. Drive quickly to the emergency room but be careful not to get into an accident on the way. At the emergency room have patience knowing your pet will receive the best possible care from a dedicated team, but recognize patients will be evaluated in order of medical priority determined by the emergency room staff.

To find a board-certified emergency and critical care specialist, please visit the American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care.

Wishing you wet-nosed kisses,