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How much does an emergency vet cost? And how can you pay for one?

How much does an emergency vet cost?
(Image credit: Getty)

When your pet is in a crisis and you’re rushing to the emergency clinic, the last thing you want to be worrying about is whether you have the funds to cover the emergency vet cost. Even the best and most cautious pet owners may experience a pet emergency. While these emergencies are stressful for a number of reasons, worrying about the ability to pay for your pet’s emergency care is a big stressor for many clients. 

Even when they have the best pet insurance, many clients struggle to pay a large veterinary emergency bill up front, so it’s always best to plan ahead. Careful planning can minimise the likelihood that you’ll find yourself unprepared for an emergency situation. Emergency veterinarians treat problems that arise when your regular family veterinarian’s office is closed in the nights, weekends, or on national holidays. Some veterinary clinics will run their own ‘out-of-hours’ service, whilst others will direct you to a different clinic. Make sure you know in advance what your vet’s protocols are, how to get hold of the emergency vet, and how to get there.

The conditions treated by emergency clinics range from mild, such as a torn toenail, to life-threatening trauma cases, such as a dog that has been hit by a car. Over a bank holiday weekend, an emergency vet may even see more day-to-day cases like sore ears that simply can’t wait the whole weekend.

Common pet emergencies

One of the common conditions an emergency vet will see is gastrointestinal upset, such as vomiting and diarrhoea. In some cases, the pet has relatively mild signs; a dog may have had just a few episodes of diarrhoea, but its owner wants to know how to help a dog with diarrhoea before the dog’s condition worsens or before the carpet in their home is ruined. In other cases, however, the pet is very ill and requires more aggressive treatment. A dog that is dehydrated after several days of vomiting and diarrhoea will need a full medical workup, plus hospitalization and intravenous (IV) fluids. 

Another common cause of emergency visits is trauma. This can range from pad injuries during a walk to severe trauma such as a road traffic collision. Many of these cases will need surgery, but some can be stabilised in hospital over the weekend or even sent home with painkillers. 

Other potential causes of emergency clinic visits include sudden weakness or collapse, seizures or other neurologic issues, breathing difficulties, and toxin ingestion. Each of these conditions varies in its diagnostic workup and treatments. Some of these conditions may be treated on an outpatient basis, but many require hospitalization. 

The cost of emergency veterinary care 

The cost of a veterinary emergency visit varies, depending on a number of factors, including the day, time, location, type of disease or condition, size of your dog, and the experience and equipment of the treating veterinarian. 

Your vet will first perform a thorough physical exam on your pet. Don’t be surprised if they seem to avoid or ignore the problem at first – they need to check your pet is stable and there’s nothing else wrong. Based on the exam findings, the veterinarian will then determine what diagnostic tests and treatments are needed and discuss these with you, along with likely outcomes and costs incurred. Some pets may require only medication, while others will require a comprehensive workup and hospitalization. Obviously, a more involved workup or more invasive treatments will be accompanied with a higher cost. 

According to PetPlan pet insurance, the average cost of a veterinary emergency is $800 to $1,500. Keep in mind, however, that this is just an average. Some emergency clinic visits, such as a straightforward case of acute diarrhoea, may cost just $200-300. If your pet is hit by a car and requires emergency surgery, however, your costs may easily climb to $5,000 or more. 

It’s important for every pet parent to be prepared for the possibility of expensive veterinary emergencies. Hopefully, your pet will live a happy, healthy life and you will never find yourself dealing with a serious veterinary emergency. If an emergency does occur and you’re prepared, however, you will be in a much better position to allow the veterinarian to proceed with high-quality veterinary care. There is nothing we vets dislike more than knowing there’s something that can be done, but the money isn’t there to allow us to do the work.

Two vets operating on a dog

(Image credit: Getty)

Pet insurance reimburses the cost of emergency care

One popular option for managing costs associated with emergency care is pet insurance. In some ways, pet insurance works like human health insurance. You pay a monthly premium in exchange for coverage of a certain percentage of your pet’s medical expenses. You will have a deductible or ‘excess’; expenses will not be eligible for coverage until you exceed this deductible. For some insurance plans this excess is barely more than the cost of the initial consultation, meaning you may find that all further tests and treatments are covered.

Pet insurance usually works by reimbursing you for the cost of the treatment once you’ve submitted the claim. That means that you’ll still have to have access to a sum of money for the vet bill, but only temporarily. If this is likely to be a problem, talk to your vet about whether they accept ‘direct claims’ from any pet insurance providers. This means the cost of the visit will be kept on your account and your vet will claim from the insurer directly, so you aren’t out of pocket. Not all vets and not all insurers will work together on this, so you might have to do some hunting around! 

 What does pet insurance cover? 

Depending on the policy, pet insurance usually covers the costs for diagnosing and treating all accidents and illnesses, with a couple of exceptions. There are two types of conditions that are often excluded from pet insurance coverage: pre-existing conditions and hereditary conditions. 

Pre-existing conditions are conditions diagnosed before you purchased the insurance policy. For example, if your dog was diagnosed with skin allergies before you purchased pet insurance, skin conditions related to your pet’s allergies would never be eligible for coverage. This can extend to conditions whose symptoms showed before the policy, even if nothing was diagnosed. For instance, if your pup’s medical record shows a heart murmur, your insurer may then exclude heart disease on the basis of the symptoms already being present.

Hereditary conditions are conditions that are genetic, or inherited through a pet’s parents. Examples of genetic conditions include hip dysplasia, tracheal collapse, and third eyelid prolapse (or “cherry eye”). Many pet insurance companies exclude hereditary conditions from coverage, even if they develop after the policy is purchased. 

Many pet insurers also won’t cover costs associated with breeding. So, if your dog needs an emergency C-section, most insurers won’t cover this. 

If you purchase pet insurance, it’s important to pay careful attention to the details of your policy. Pay careful attention to your financial responsibilities and what is and is not covered by the policy. This can prevent a lot of headaches and frustration! In general, however, pet insurance is a great option to help defray costs associated with emergency veterinary care. We’d also recommend you find out how to get cheaper pet insurance as there are few steps you can take to limit the cost. However, take care shopping around – any symptoms your dog has had with the old insurer can be ‘pre-existing conditions’ with the new insurer!

What if you don’t have pet insurance?

When a pet emergency occurs and you don’t have pet insurance, your options are more limited. Hopefully, you have savings or a credit card available to handle the veterinary bill. If not, many emergency veterinarians in the US offer credit through a company known as CareCredit®. CareCredit® is a credit card designed specifically for medical and veterinary expenses. You can apply online or via telephone and receive a decision within minutes. If you’re approved, there is often a period of interest-free financing available. 

If you live elsewhere or are unable to get approved for CareCredit®, consider reaching out to friends and family for help. Some clients may also use GoFundMe® or reach out to non-profit foundations to help fund their pets’ veterinary care, but these alternatives may not be logistically feasible in an emergency situation. Most emergency clinics will require at least an initial deposit before beginning treatment, so you will need to have funds available in a short timeframe. 

Remember, talk to your vet about your finances and budget – we can’t help if we don’t know what you can and can’t afford. It may be that we can offer a second-best option that’s significantly cheaper. Your vet may also know where else you can go for financial help.

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

 While we all hope that we will never have to deal with emergency vet costs, the reality is that emergencies happen. There’s a decent chance that you experience at least one or two emergency visits over your pet’s lifetime. Plan ahead and have financial resources in place for emergencies, whether that is a pet insurance plan, a well-funded pet savings account, or accessible credit. Having the ability to pay for emergencies will ensure that your veterinarian can provide your pet with the best possible care. 

Catherine Barnette DVM

Dr. Barnette received both her Bachelor of Science degree in zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida. She’s an experienced writer, educator, and veterinarian, with a passion for making scientific and medical information accessible to public and professional audiences.