A Night in the Life of an Emergency Pet Hospital Vet

By Jennifer Viegas for The Daily Cat

A Night in the Life of an Emergency Pet Hospital Vet

TV shows often chronicle the dramatic goings-on in the emergency room of hospitals, but what about emergency pet hospitals? Here, Dr. Katy Nelson, an associate emergency veterinarian and a certified veterinary journalist in Alexandria, Va., describes what goes on at such hospitals from her perspective.

How an ER Shift Starts
Nelson says a typical shift in an ER starts and ends the same way: with rounds. “Vets, just like doctors, have to turn over their patients so that the incoming doctor knows all the ins and outs of each case, knows what to watch for, and what the plan is.”

After this work comes what she and some other ER vets call “SOAP.” This stands for “Subjective, Objective, Assessment and Plan.” The acronym refers to many different activities, from fielding owner questions, to communicating with other veterinary hospitals, to handling all of the emergency cases that come through the front door. Some nights, this process goes very quickly; other nights, it goes on and on. “The reality of emergency medicine is that it’s like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates — you never know what you’re going to get,” says Nelson. But she says most “emergency types” thrive on the uncertainty.

Cat ER Patients
Nelson says that most cats come into the emergency room for the following health problems: vomiting, diarrhea, urinary problems, respiratory issues and lack of appetite.

“Cats can be very vocal and very physical, so you’ve got to use caution when dealing with them,” says Nelson. “For the most part, they’re just scared, so by dealing with them slowly and with patience, you often can achieve what you need to get done by simply assuring them that you’re not out to hurt them.”

How ER Pet Hospitals Differ From Others
As opposed to a regular veterinary office, most ER facilities stay open for 24 hours, or handle cases after normal working hours. Emergency hospitals are typically more expensive, with care costing about 20 percent to 30 percent more due to higher overhead and higher liability, as well as what Nelson calls “the convenience factor.” As opposed to other care facilities, some ER hospitals would rather that the owner not be in the treatment area at the time of the emergency. This is much like a human hospital, where the family is frequently kept outside in the waiting room.

Reasons to Visit an ER
Because of the ER cost and the often late-night hours, some cat owners try to wait out their pets’ health problems until the morning, figuring that their cats’ usual veterinarians can handle the issues then. Nelson, however, says you should never wait until morning if the following symptoms surface:

  • Respiratory distress. It could be tied to asthma, congestive heart failure or a clot in the lungs, all of which can be fatal.
  • Nonproductive urination. A urinary obstruction can be life-threatening.
  • Vomiting/diarrhea/lack of appetite for more than 48 hours. This can lead to severe and life-threatening liver damage among cats.
  • Ingestion of string or a possible toxin. It’s better to be safe than sorry in such cases.

What to Do Before Going to the ER With Your Cat

Nelson offers the following three tips:

1. Try to bring a copy of the medical records with you (and not just a receipt) so that your ER doctor can have a complete picture of your cat’s history rather than just having to go on your memory alone, which is not always that great during an emergency.

2. Always bring your cat in a carrier. Remember that there will be other pets in the hospital. For your own pet’s safety, having it in a carrier is key.

3. If you know your cat gets aggressive or has required sedation during prior visits, please tell your veterinarian or technician immediately so that no one gets hurt.

Nerves and emotions run high at ER hospitals, so by following such advice, you can eliminate additional hassle. You might also help to save your pet’s life.

Jennifer Viegas is the managing editor of The Daily Cat. She is a journalist for Discovery News, the news service for the Discovery Channel, and has written more than 20 books on animals, health and other science-related topics.

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