The District Vet: What is It A Pet Emergency?

Close-up of a veterinarian taking care of injured dog

It’s 9 p.m. on a Sunday evening and the dog has a cough. He’s an otherwise healthy three-year old Labrador. He has normal energy. The question: can this wait until the morning?

For urgent matters there are several 24-hour facilities within the city or in nearby Virginia. Like most on-call and after-hours services, emergency veterinary medicine comes at a significant premium. The examination fee alone is $250, or more. Depending upon the facility, routine X-rays and bloodwork may exceed $1000-$1500. Treatments such as subcutaneous fluids, injectable antibiotics, and other therapies are also usually at a higher cost than your general practice veterinarian.

What constitutes an emergency requiring immediate care? Think of your pet in a similar light to yourself. If you are having difficulty breathing, have severe hives, are actively bleeding, going to the emergency room is clear-cut! But what about lesser issues? Many times if there’s a problem that you don’t feel warrants an urgent care visit for yourself, the same rationale can be transposed to your pet.

When a problem arises after regular veterinary hours, first calmly assess the situation. If it appears life-threatening or urgent, call or go to the emergency room with your pet. For pets that have a mild to moderate lameness that just started, and the pet is feeling fine otherwise, usually giving them a bit of peace and waiting until the morning is just fine. The same can be said of an episode or two of brownish diarrhea without significant blood. A late-night encounter with a rat (this is much more common than you’d think) that results in a a few scrapes and punctures, can usually wait until the morning, too. If you have a dog that is trying to vomit, but can’t seem to produce anything, call the emergency room right away.

What about if your pet ate something potentially toxic? Be wary of the internet; there’s lots of not-so-accurate advice out there. If you can obtain a label of the product, great! It will help guide veterinarians in determining if there’s a hazard. You may consider calling Pet Poison Control for assistance. There is a charge for this service, and you will be able to speak with an expert in pet toxicities. If they tell you to seek care, please be sure to obtain your pet’s case number. This will help us veterinarians as we can then call them for more information, if needed.

If you take your friend to urgent care, please remember to bring a book and a bit of patience! Emergency care isn’t scheduled and pets may be seen in order of urgency. An actively bleeding pet will be seen before a mild cough or lameness. Emergency doctors work under stressful conditions so please have a bit of patience with them and their staff.

When at urgent care, if certain tests or procedures are needed, but not urgent, especially if the tests are sent to an outside laboratory, inquire if your regular veterinarian would be better to perform these tests or procedures. Remember that with all tests, especially those that don’t return the same day, there will have to be follow-up with the results. The testing may also lead to needing additional testing or medications and therapies.

Urgent care or the emergency room is to be utilized for non-routine care. They are not set up or designed to give routine vaccinations, perform annual heartworm tests, or discuss overall routine wellness and behavior. General practice veterinarians can be thought of as a helping neighbor who watches your children grow and develop, noting trends in their behavior, gait, relationship with you, and more. Their medical records also show progressive changes and development. 

The above discussion isn’t meant to be medical advice for your pet, but to promote a bit of thought and consideration before running to the emergency room. Our mantra is that if you are concerned, worried about your pet, cannot wait until the morning, or simply need peace of mind, go to urgent care. And be certain that they forward your regular veterinarian the medical records as soon as possible. Be safe and healthy out there.

Dr. Teich is the medical director for District Veterinary Hospitals in Navy Yard, Eastern Market and Brookland. Visit for more information.