Is it a Veterinary Emergency?

Is it a Veterinary Emergency?

Health & Safety

Veterinary emergencies are unfortunately common and everyday veterinary centres up and down the country treat animals that are rushed into them. While most of these are genuine emergencies, some could wait. So when is it in emergency? And when do you really need to contact the vet? Below is an outline of how emergencies are prioritised.

Classification of first aid and emergencies

All veterinary emergencies collectively come under first aid and its principles and aims. The definition of veterinary first aid is:**"The immediate treatment of injured animals or those suffering from sudden illness"**The aims of veterinary first aid can vary in wording but all have the same underlying meaning: 1) To preserve life.2) To prevent suffering.3) To prevent the situation deteriorating.An emergency call to a veterinary surgery might be classified by suitably trained staff as one of three types:

  • Life-threatening emergencies - these require immediate action, sometimes by the owner at their own home as directed by the veterinary surgeon over the telephone.Examples of life-threatening emergencies:UnconsciousnessConscious collapse with difficulty in breathingSevere bleedingSevere burnsProlapsed eyePoisoningSnake bites
  • Emergencies requiring immediate action - normally at the surgery, but where life is not immediately threatened.Examples of emergencies needing immediate attention:Conscious collapseDifficulty breathingFractures or dislocationsBleedingGaping woundsSevere difficulty in passing urineDifficulty in birthing
  • Minor emergencies - where advice over the telephone can enable the owner to make their animal comfortable until they are able to visit the surgery.Examples of minor emergencies (that can wait until the surgery is open):Insect stingsMinor wounds - where any bleeding can be controlled easily by a dressingMinor burns - where there is only slight discomfortAbscessesLimping animals - where the animal is slightly lame but able to weight bearBlood in the urineAural haematoma - a blood swelling of the ear These lists are not exhaustive but can give you an idea about the type of emergency vets can come across daily.

What you need to tell the call taker if you think it is an emergency?

When you ring the surgery for help, the main point you need to remember, (and of course it is easy said than done) is to try and remain calm. You might be asked a series of questions and although this may seem a waste of precious time, answering clearly and concisely, to the best of your ability, might just save your animals life. The kind of questions you might be asked are:**What is the nature of the injury?**Here you need to answer as clearly as possible, for example - is it burning from a boiling kettle? Bleeding from a deep cut? An insect sting? Has the animal a swollen abdomen?**What is the extent of the injury?**Is the animal conscious or unconscious? Is it breathing properly? How severe is any bleeding? These are necessary to establish the size of the problem.**When did this happen?**This question is important as it will enable veterinary staff to confirm how much blood loss animal may have had, or how long it may have been fitting etc. You may also be asked if the animal collapsed did you see it, or did you find it like it?**Is the animal currently on any veterinary medication?**It should be remembered that veterinary staff may not have access immediately to your records, so answering this question is just as important as the rest. If the animal is diabetic then this should meet made clear to the call taker.Of course as well as all the above questions you will need to give details about yourself (your name, address, telephone number) and that of your animal - name, age, sex and breed. Taking this history enables staff to decide on the type of emergency and to be able to give owners instructions, should the animal need immediate first aid at home. It also enables preparations to be made within the surgery, for example dressings, veterinary instrument kits and equipment, to be made ready when animal is admitted.

Poisoning emergencies

One of the more complex emergencies is poisoning. This is because there are numerous substances that can poison animals. When an animal is brought in as an emergency and poisoning seems to be the cause, there will be no doubt more questions asked by veterinary staff. Again this is not a waste of time but important to determine the type of treatment or antidote that can be given. If poisoning is suspected then it can help to take to the surgery the container at the poison came in. Like many substances, poisons are also categorised, they can be:

  • Medicines - human or animal
  • Pesticides - including weed killers, flea sprays, slug bait or rat poison
  • Household chemicals - substances from your home and garage like engine oil, antifreeze or disinfectants
  • Plants - certain common plants can give nasty reactions
  • Reptile bites - such as adder bites
  • Insect stings - wasp and bee stings etc.

In the United Kingdom the Veterinary Poisons Information Service can provide 24-hour information to veterinary surgeons with regards treatment, the clinical effects of poisonous substances and antidote advice. This is why questions and a case history are asked!


Dealing with veterinary emergencies is not straightforward and cases need to be prioritised. Many owners still worry about whether they should phone the vet, both for emotional reasons (they are really worried about their animal, but think they are being silly), not wanting to bother the vet, or financial reasons (affording the callout fee and treatment).Most vets do not mind phone calls out of hours as long as the person is sensible. There is a big difference between a collapsed dog and telling the vet they have found some fleas! The main thing to remember is if in doubt and you're seriously worried about your animals health then make a phone call to the vet, if it is deemed a minor emergency then at least you will have peace of mind.

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