September 17, 2023

When to Use an Urgent Care Veterinarian vs. an Emergency Vet

Medically reviewed by Bradley J. Waffa, MSPH, DVM

Veterinary medicine is constantly evolving to serve the needs of today’s pet parents. In recent years, veterinary urgent care clinics, modeled after human urgent care, have popped up as an alternative to 24/7 emergency hospitals. Just like in human healthcare, if you can’t get into your primary care provider, you often turn to urgent care instead of heading to the emergency room. With dogs and cats, it can be tricky to assess when to utilize urgent care vs. going directly to an emergency vet, so we’re here to help!


Your 2-Step Pet Assessment

Since dogs and cats can’t talk (though maybe you’d argue differently), it’s up to us to assess whether or not something is wrong. This can be tricky and stressful, but when in doubt, trust your judgement. You know your pet better than anyone, so if you have a sneaking suspicion that something might be wrong, you’re probably right. And if in doubt, it’s always better to err on the side of caution.


Step 1: Is Your Pet Stable?

The first thing you’ll want to do is determine whether this is a life-threatening emergency or if your pet is stable. This will help dictate whether you should head directly to the ER, or if you can visit an urgent care clinic instead. ERs are designed to quickly triage and admit unstable, life-threatening patients, but stable cases that are still sick often get stuck waiting – sometimes for hours! – while the more critical patients are managed first.

Life-Threatening Problems (Head to the ER Immediately):

  • Labored breathing or struggling to breathe
  • Sudden loss of consciousness
  • Hit-by-car or a similar traumatic injury
  • Multiple broken bones or loss of limbs
  • Excessive bleeding due to major wounds

In most cases, you’ll recognize an emergency when you see it, though sometimes severely sick animals can appear more stable than they are. If you’re unsure, call Truss Vet or your local ER for guidance. If your pet does appear stable, a familiarity with the types of common problems we see and treat in an urgent care setting can help confirm your decision.


Step 2: Common Problems and Symptoms Addressed in Veterinary Urgent Care

If your pet is exhibiting any of the following problems they are probably a great fit for veterinary urgent care. The most common issues include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Urinary issues or urinary tract infections (UTI)
  • Ear infection
  • Eye issues (redness, irritation, infections, etc.)
  • Coughing and sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Accidental / toxin ingestions (e.g. chocolate)
  • Scooting
  • Rashes and other skin issues
  • Limping/lameness and broken nails
  • Behavior changes or something seems “off”
  • Lumps and bumps
  • Minor wounds
  • End-of-life care (euthanasia)

For a full list of common veterinary urgent care and emergency vet issues, check out this post.

When in doubt, either call a provider for guidance or simply bring your pet in to be seen. It’s often worth a quick office visit to gain the peace-of-mind that your pet is okay; and if something is wrong, you’ll be glad you brought them in to receive care!


Urgent Care Highlights:
  • Services: Non-life threatening pet issues that are stable, but would benefit from same-day care
  • Average Wait Time: 0 minutes to 90 minutes
  • Typical Hours: Open 12 hours per day or after-hours
  • Average Exam Fee: $125 – $150
  • Average Total Cost: Range of $125 – $1,500 (average of $300 to $600)


Emergency Vet Highlights:
  • Services: Life threatening emergencies and unstable pets that need care ASAP
  • Average Wait Time: 60 minutes to 6 hours
  • Typical Hours: 24/7
  • Average Exam Fee: $225 – $300
  • Average Total Cost: Range of $500 – $10,000 (average of $1,000+)


Pet First Aid

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has helpful information on pet first aid, as well as a downloadable guide that you can print out.


Does your dog or cat need veterinary urgent care? Reserve a visit at Truss Vet! Not sure? Give us a call to chat with our experienced veterinary team!