What to Expect When the Unexpected Happens: A Trip to the ER

Take steps to minimize risks and be prepared

Perhaps the scariest thing to pet owners is when an illness or injury to their pet occurs. Now imagine that this happens at 2 am and their regular veterinary clinic is closed. What do they do? Where do they go? Dr. Caroline Tonozzi, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana who is board certified in emergency and critical care, explains what to expect during a trip to the emergency room.

How to Tell If Your Pet Is Having an Emergency

The first question that often comes up is: Should I bring my pet to the ER now or wait to schedule an appointment with my regular veterinarian?

“There are many cases that should be seen by an emergency room veterinarian right away,” says Dr. Tonozzi.

The following situations most likely require immediate attention. Your animal:

  • Is having trouble breathing, has collapsed, or is having seizures;
  • Has eaten something toxic.
  • Has been involved in any trauma, such as a fall or being hit by a car, that may have caused a broken bone or internal injuries.

Always call the clinic to describe the problem if you have any question regarding whether to take your pet to the emergency room.

What Happens in the ER

Each emergency room will have its own process. The first steps when you arrive will likely include checking in at the reception desk, providing information about your pet and what happened, and having your pet evaluated for the urgency of care needed. Usually this means that doctors will take your pet to an examination room for a physical examination that involves taking heart rate, respiration rate, blood pressure, weight, and temperature.

At the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital, fourth-year veterinary students are usually part of the team that will be evaluating and treating your pet, under the guidance of veterinarians such as Dr. Tonozzi. (Read more about the ER experience at Illinois.)

While the doctors are deciding on diagnostic approaches, such as X-rays or other imaging, and possible treatment options, you will most likely be waiting in the lobby area. “During this time, the veterinary team is working hard to do what is best for your pet, and it may take time to share information with you,” says Dr. Tonozzi. “Try to remain patient and understanding as you wait.”

She also emphasizes the importance of being open to working with and trusting a new veterinarian and veterinary team during your trip to the ER. The team is there for you and your pet during this stressful time.

How You Can Prepare for Emergencies

Emergencies are not planned and may be unavoidable. However, you can take steps to minimize risks and increase your readiness to act if the situation arises. One way to reduce emergencies is to “animal-proof” your home to prevent poisonings and gastrointestinal emergencies. This process means putting medications, human foods, and other things that pets should not eat out of reach of your pet. Educate yourself about substances that are toxic to pets. For example, lilies are toxic to cats and should not be kept in the home if you have a cat.

You can also prepare for a trip to the ER by keeping a record of your pet’s current medications, including the prescribed dosage and timing of the most recent dose. Providing this information will help the emergency medicine team diagnose and treat your pet. Such a record is especially useful for animals with disorders such as seizures or diabetes. Dr. Tonozzi suggests keeping a record of incidents and medications in a journal that can be easily taken along in case of emergency.

Financial preparation is another recommendation from Dr. Tonozzi.

“Once you know you are going to get a pet, or certainly if you already have one, you should start an emergency fund for them and consider pet insurance,” she says. “Both options will help alleviate the financial stress that can often accompany a surprise trip to the emergency room.”

You Are Part of the Team

Although emergency visits are stressful for owners, Dr. Tonozzi really enjoys working as an ER veterinarian. Her favorite part of the job is the collaboration between the owner and the veterinary team. Hopefully, armed with a bit more knowledge and preparation, you and your pet will make it through without too much anxiety if you ever have to visit the animal ER.

If you have any questions about emergency care for pets, talk to your veterinarian. You can also contact the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital, which is open for emergencies 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.

By Beth Pieper