What to Expect at the Veterinary Emergency Hospital

What to Expect at the Veterinary Emergency Hospital

Kitten on examination table at the hospital, looking at a stethoscope.Kitten on examination table at the hospital, looking at a stethoscope.
Kitten on examination table at the hospital, looking at a stethoscope.Kitten on examination table at the hospital, looking at a stethoscope.

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Table of Contents:

  1. The Arrival and Triage Process for Your Pet
  2. Examination of the Mucus Membrane
  3. Classifying the Emergency

We have all had something unexpected happen to a beloved pet, and it can be difficult to navigate the emergency treatment process, especially when concerned for your pet’s health.

We are going to walk you through what to expect when you arrive at an emergency hospital and how to be prepared.

The Arrival and Triage Process for Your Pet

Vet techs examine pets and categorize the level of emergency.
A veterinary technician listening to a dog’s heart and lungs.


Here are some tips and tricks to ease you through processing at the ER:

  • If possible, call the veterinary hospital before you arrive. This will help the emergency staff prepare for your arrival in case of a true emergency. By calling ahead, the staff can offer you some suggestions regarding your pet’s condition. If you think your pet ingested a toxin, the staff will advise you to call a poison control phone number first for a toxicologist recommendation. They will also ask you to bring in the packaging or bottle of the substance that your pet may have ingested.
  • Bring all of your pet’s medical records and current medications in their labeled prescription bottles. Your pet’s vaccination records are important to bring with you, as this will help the veterinarian have a better understanding of your pet’s previous medical history. If your pet needs to be admitted to the hospital for treatment, having your own medications will be helpful for administration in the hospital, and may save you some money. Make sure that medication is in a labeled prescription bottle, so that nursing staff can ensure the correct medication and dosage is given to the patient.
  • Bring a book or computer with you, since there may be long wait times. Be prepared to spend several hours in the emergency room.
  • Once you have arrived at the hospital, the client service staff will have paperwork for you to fill out, which will include your veterinarian’s information, personal phone number, and address.
  • A veterinary technician will then triage your pet, performing a primary visual assessment of the animal. They will observe your pet’s breathing, determining if it is normal or has an increased effort or respiratory rate. For cat owners, the technician will make sure that they are not open-mouth breathing or panting, which is very abnormal for a cat. They will also take note of the pet’s attitude and mentation, and whether they can stand or walk, and are wagging their tail. If your pet appears to be stable at this point, the veterinary technician will then move them into an examination room, where they will ask you a series of questions. These questions will include your pet’s age, sex, travel history, and whether or not they have been spayed or neutered. The nurse will want to go over your pet’s eating and bathroom habits, since this may give some insight into their current condition.
  • The nurse will then check your pet’s vital parameters.

Here are normal vital parameters for cats and dogs:

Vital parameters Cat Dog
Temperature 100.5 – 102.5 F 100.5 – 102.5 F
Heart Rate 160 – 220 beats per minute 60 – 140 beats per minute
Pulse Rate 160 – 220 beats per minute 60 – 140 beats per minute
Respiratory Rate 24 – 42 breaths per minute 10 – 30 breaths per minute
Systolic blood pressure 100-160 mmHg 100 – 160 mmHg
Diastolic blood pressure 50 – 80 mmHg 50 – 80 mmHg

The body temperature is taken with a rectal thermometer, as this provides the most accurate reading in both dogs and cats. The technician will listen to the lungs with a stethoscope and will get a heart rate and respiratory rate. At the same time, they will feel for femoral pulses and the quality of the pulse, as this provides some indication of the patient’s blood pressure.

Examination of the Mucus Membrane

The technician will also look inside your pet’s mouth to check the color and texture of their mucus membranes (gums). If they feel dry or tacky, this could indicate that the patient is dehydrated.

Yellow mucous membranes in dogs indicate liver disease.

Here’s what each color indicates about your pet’s health:

  • White mucous membranes may indicate that the patient has low red blood cells or shock.
  • Yellow mucous membranes (shown above) may indicate that the patient has liver disease.
  • Gray mucous membranes may indicate that the patient ingested a toxin or is not breathing well.
  • Blue mucous membranes may indicate that there is a decrease in oxygen in the bloodstream and respiratory distress.
  • Brick red mucous membranes may indicate that the patient is in septic shock.

Classifying the Emergency

Following the battery of preliminary examinations, your veterinary technician will classify the emergency as one of the following categories:

Class Treatment Time Conditional of Animal
Class 1 – Critical Treatment within seconds No heartbeat, not breathing, or difficult breathing
Class 2 – Urgent Treatments within minutes Open fractures, profuse bleeding, in extreme pain
Class 3 – Stable Treatments within hours Vomiting for 12 hours, diarrhea for 24 hours, bloody stool
Class 4 – Completely Stable Treatment within 24 hours Broken toenail, itchy skin, diarrhea less the 12 hours

Classifying Pet Emergencies

Why is there such a long wait?

When a pet comes in with difficulty breathing or is profusely bleeding, this pet must be treated immediately. On the other hand, if your pet has been triaged with a broken toenail (class 4 triage), then graver emergencies (classes 1, 2, 3 triages) will be treated first. Pets are not seen by the veterinarian in the order that they arrive at the hospital. There is not an appointment schedule like at your regular veterinarian clinic. So, please be patient and trust that the emergency staff is working hard to provide each and every pet with the highest standards of medical care. There is also a national shortage of emergency veterinarians in the United States. On occasion, there might only be one or two emergency veterinarians on staff and they are working hard to provide the best possible care to all the pets in the hospital.

Once it is your pet’s turn to be seen by a veterinarian, they will come in and examine your pet and discuss your pet’s history with you. The veterinarian will make recommendations for your pet including blood work, radiographs, and/or an ultrasound. The technician will make an estimate for you to review including recommendations for treatment in the hospital. They will then type up discharge instructions and go over what will happen if and when your pet is hospitalized.

Do not hesitate to follow up if you have any additional questions after you leave the hospital. Understanding forthcoming treatment measures is the best way to avoid panic and confusion following a pet emergency.

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