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Emergencies: How Veterinary Emergencies Are Prioritized

Reviewed by Peter Kintzer DVM, DACVIM on Wednesday, July 2, 2014
Posted June 11, 2014 in Dog Checkups & Preventive Care

When is it an emergency?
Though my hospital is not an “emergency” hospital, we often see and treat our own emergencies.  Over the years, seeing hundreds of emergencies — many after hours — I’ve learned a lot. My first observation, one which I’ve shared before, is that most “emergencies” aren’t!  

Many, if not most, of the cases rushed to an after-hours emergency hospital probably could, with some professional guidance, have waited until your regular hospital opened the next morning. Many pet owners, faced with what they think is a critical problem, often panic — especially if they have no one to talk to, so they rush in to the emergency facility. Quite frankly, I don’t blame them.

[Editor’s Note: If you think your pet may be in the midst of an emergency, and you’re unable to contact a veterinarian, don’t hesitate to get to an emergency clinic. Click here for more tips on evaluating an emergency situation.]

It’s because of this that I, or one of my associates, take our own emergency calls — to be that buffer for someone to talk to.  

How will they treat my dog or cat at an emergency clinic?
Though I love the fact that these facilities are available, the emergency treatment philosophy differs from that of a non-emergency clinic. More must be done in a suspected emergency situation than would need to be done at your regular veterinarian’s clinic during a non-emergency situation. Often, especially if the problem is a true emergency, the luxury of time is lost. The conservative case management approach of having a well coordinated “game plan” mayX-ray of a broken canine bone no longer be appropriate.  

In these situations, often multiple tests and procedures need to be done in a more immediate fashion to diagnose, stabilize, and treat a critically ill patient. Emergency veterinarians are most concerned with the life-threatening ramifications of the emergency and allow the non-critical problems to take a back seat.  This is called “triage,” which dictates an order in which patients and problems are handled. Once the critical, potentially life threatening, conditions are dealt with, it is often prudent to wait and make sure the patient is stabilized before attention to the non-critical problems is given.

What is considered “non-critical?”
Some of the more common (non-critical) problems that are not handled with much urgency or definitive repair until a patient is completely stabilized are probably things

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Jeff has more than 30 years of experience in the veterinary industry and is a licensed veterinarian as well as a founding member of IDEXX’s Pet Health Network team.