Listen as Dr. Karen Becker discusses how to plan ahead for any health emergency your beloved pet might encounter.
My fabulous videographer, Liz, suggested this topic after navigating a recent emergency situation with her own beloved cat.
Liz wasn’t sure what to do “in the heat of the moment.” She didn’t know if she should take her kitty to the emergency veterinary center. She didn’t want to stress her cat out unnecessarily, and she didn’t want to pay for emergency services that weren’t really required.
On the other hand, she didn’t want to neglect what might be a life-threatening situation, and she wanted her pet to feel better.
Needless to say, the situation was very stressful for Liz, and she realized she wasn’t alone in her confusion about deciding the right thing to do when pet emergencies arise.
Many pet owners don’t know whether they should go to an emergency vet clinic – they don’t want to go too soon or unnecessarily, but they also don’t want to wait if the circumstance is dire, only to suffer terrible regret and guilt afterwards that they didn’t take their beloved pet for help immediately.
Preparation is Priceless
The most important thing you can do to prepare for an emergency with your pet is to gather the information you’ll need to make the right decisions for your animal and yourself.
The first thing you should do is watch the above video, and the part two video next week, as soon as you can – but before you actually have a crisis with your dog, cat or other pet.
Being prepared really is priceless, and while it won’t remove the emotional stress you’ll feel if your pet is injured or suddenly becomes very ill, if you have a plan in place, you’ll have a roadmap to follow. This should both empower and calm you so that you’re able to make rational decisions “in the heat of the moment.”
Step #1: Locate the emergency clinic you’ll use.
Don’t wait until your pet is bleeding, screaming in pain or has complete urinary blockage before deciding where you’ll take him for emergency services.
You can use the phonebook to locate a clinic, or ask for a referral from your pet’s regular vet or another local DVM.
In the Chicago area where I live and practice, there are a number of excellent emergency clinics. Hours of operation are usually 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. as they handle emergencies only (they don’t offer primary veterinary care services), and there are several to choose from.
There are also a number of really great referral animal medical facilities in the Chicago area with cardiologists, internal medicine specialists and orthopedic surgeons, in addition to an ER critical care team. These facilities refer pet patients from one department to another as required. All that top-notch care is housed under one roof, making it possible for very sick or injured pets to get immediate medical attention of almost any kind.
I realize many of you live in areas where these kinds of facilities aren’t available. You may live in a rural location where getting emergency veterinary service involves calling the pager of a large animal doctor, for example.
You may have to drive to a state teaching hospital hours away because that’s the closest facility offering emergency or critical care.
Regardless of your situation, you need to have that pager number available or that emergency clinic a hundred miles away identified ahead of time.
Step #2: Pay a visit to the emergency facility.
If it’s at all possible, I recommend you visit the emergency clinic you plan to use before you ever need it. If visiting isn’t practical, at least call and inquire about the services they are equipped to provide, for example:
- Do they do blood transfusions?
- Do they perform surgeries? If so, what kind?
- Or do they only stabilize critical animals for transportation to veterinarians or other facilities?
- Can they house your pet through the next day? If they close at 7:00am, for example, and your pet has had surgery and is hooked up to an IV and monitoring devices, will you be required to be there before they close in the morning to transfer your pet yourself? If so, do you know where to take her next?
Many emergency vet clinics can monitor sick animals during the hours they are closed and even over weekends. If the facility you’ve chosen can do that, you’ll have peace of mind knowing it’s not up to you to transport your ill or injured pet somewhere else. But you need to figure all that out before you actually need the information.
Step #3: Decide how you’ll handle payment for emergency services.
While visiting or talking with the clinic you’ve selected, find out what forms of payment they accept.
Many emergency veterinary facilities require your credit card before they will even look at your pet. I don’t intend in this video to discuss why this is done or whether it’s right or wrong – you just need to know it is often done this way so you can prepare for it.
If you don’t have a credit card, many facilities will not even look at your pet. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.
Identify what forms of payment the clinic accepts and either be prepared with a credit card you can use in case of emergency, or look elsewhere for emergency services.
Step #4: Find out about any special procedures the clinic requires you to follow.
This may seem insignificant, but remember – you’re preparing in advance so that you’ll know what to do in a time of crisis when you may not be thinking clearly.
Some emergency animal facilities have procedures for how to manage your pet when you bring her in. For example, if you have a certain breed of dog or one that can be aggressive, the policy of the clinic may be that you need to leave your pet in the car until the doctor can see him. Or you may need to bring him in through a back door.
If you have a cat that is fractious under normal circumstances, she’s likely to be twice as hard to handle if she’s hurt or feeling sick. The clinic may require you to leave your cat in the carrier at all times.
It’s important to know these types of operating policies and procedures ahead of time.
Step #5: Create an emergency file for your pet.
Now you want to gather all this information into a file or folder that you can put your hands on immediately in a time of crisis.
Include the following pieces of information in your pet emergency file:
- The name, address and phone number of the emergency vet clinic you’ve pre-selected, along with driving directions.
- Important information you gathered from your visit or phone call, like clinic hours of operation, procedures performed and not offered, housing and monitoring of ill and injured pets, special animal handling policies if any, etc.
- A list of any allergies you know your pet has, particularly to medications.
- Your credit card information. If you happen to have a CareCredit® card, which many pet owners use for veterinary expenses or emergencies, you should include all that information in the file as well.
- A 3x5 index card which lists your cell phone number, home or other number where you can be reached, and any medications and supplements, including dosages your pet is currently taking.
You can simply hand the card to the receptionist or doctor at the emergency clinic instead of trying to remember the information it contains in the midst of a crisis. Remember to make a new card for your file if you don’t get that one back from the clinic.
Step #6: Make up a flowchart to put in your pet emergency file.
This flowchart (or any type of chart, table or list that works for you) is a tool to help you think through some very important decisions you might need to make if your pet becomes injured or seriously ill.
The idea here is to make a plan while you’re in a calm, non-emergency state of mind and write it all down. The following are questions you need to consider.
How far will I go with treatment for my pets? You should have a plan for each pet, as the situation for each will be at least slightly different. For example, I have a very elderly Rottweiler. She’s a large breed dog – what if she needed emergency amputation of a leg? Would I be willing to allow it? And will the leg involved make a difference? The loss of a back leg would mean she’d probably still be able to get around. But amputation of a front leg on a Rottie doesn’t have a high probability of success in terms of her future mobility.
Would you approve back surgery on your pet? How about removal of a major organ? If you know in your heart you do not want those things for your animal, write it down while you’re in a calm, rational frame of mind and are able to listen to the wisdom of your inner voice.
You need to establish treatment boundaries before you find yourself in a situation in which you’re operating on pure emotion and might make decisions you’ll later regret.
How much can I afford to spend? Financial constraints are a fact of life for most of us, so there’s no need to feel guilty about what you can or can’t afford to spend. If you know you have a certain dollar limit -- or you need to calculate just what that limit is –write it down and if the time comes, you’ll be prepared to tell the emergency facility right up front exactly what you can afford to spend. This can prevent you from being pushed beyond your financial means if an emergency arises.
How many invasive procedures will I allow for my pet? Set an “invasiveness tolerance level” for your animal based on your own feelings and beliefs – your wise inner voice.
For example, an ultrasound is a three-dimensional image taken with an external device that is entirely non-invasive, but could be stressful for your pet. Exploratory surgery, on the other hand, is very invasive. Your pet will be put under general anesthesia, opened up, and her internal organs explored.
If you’re unwilling to put your pet under the knife but are okay with an ultrasound, write it down so you know in advance how you feel about invasive procedures.
How far will I let my pet be pushed? This is where you consider your pet’s individual stress tolerance level. For example, there are lots of 17 year-old cats that have never left their homes. They are used to a very quiet, peaceful environment. If you must pack your elderly housecat off to an emergency clinic with dozens of barking dogs, bright lights, odd smells and strange people, it can be overwhelmingly stressful for your kitty.
In such a case, you may decide not to put your pet through certain procedures – even if they’re warranted and you’d prefer they be done – because you know your cat will very likely have an emotional meltdown simply from the stress of the situation.
Identify your pet’s stress threshold and make a decision ahead of time not to go beyond it.
How do I feel about resuscitation and other end-stage issues? I realize you don’t want to think about such things – none of us do. But it’s better to think it through while you’re calm and can hear that inner voice of wisdom you possess.
If your beloved pet slips into a coma at an emergency facility, do you want the doctor to perform CPR, or are you prepared let him go? If you want your pet saved at all costs, will you be able to manage a critically ill animal, perhaps on life support?
How do I feel about euthanasia? Last but not least, sort out your thoughts and feelings about euthanasia. Another terribly difficult subject, but one that deserves your consideration.
Think about whether you agree in principle with euthanasia. If you must euthanize your pet, would you want it done at home – and which family members would be involved? How about your children, if you have any?
And how do you want your pet’s remains handled upon death? Do you want to take her home for burial? Would you like her cremated and the ashes returned to you? Or would you prefer to leave the remains at the clinic for disposal?
Give the situation some thought before the time arrives. Only you know what’s best for your pet, and for you and your family.
Put all this information into your pet emergency file. Make sure the file is easily located so you can grab it quickly to take with you in an emergency.
Watch for the second half of this two-part series next week. In part two, I’ll discuss the difference between trauma, acute trauma, and the gradual “unraveling” that occurs with older pets.
I’ll also explain how to determine if your pet is truly in crisis or whether his symptoms are non life-threatening, and what to expect when you take your pet to an emergency veterinary facility.