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How much does an emergency vet cost? Make sure you're prepared for the cost of care

Emergency vet cost - A female vet examines a small dog
(Image credit: Getty)

When your pet is in a crisis and you’re rushing to the emergency clinic, you shouldn’t have to dedicate mental time or energy to wondering, “how much does an emergency vet cost?” Instead, your mental energy needs to be focused on your pet, so you can drive safely, provide the veterinary team with the information they need to begin their workup, and make rational decisions as needed. 

Many pets experience a veterinary emergency at some time in their life and, unfortunately, emergency veterinary care is often expensive. Even if you have purchased the best pet insurance, you will likely still be responsible for paying veterinary expenses up front until your insurance can reimburse you. Therefore, it’s important to plan ahead. 

Emergency veterinarians treat pets when their regular veterinarian’s office is closed (on nights, weekends, or holidays). They treat conditions ranging from mild (such as a hot spot on the skin) to life-threatening trauma (such as a dog that has been hit by a car). On a holiday weekend, an emergency vet may even see everyday cases, like ear infections, that are not life-threatening but should not go days without care. Make sure you talk to your vet about their emergency protocols in advance, so you know who you need to contact and where you should take your pet if an emergency arises or your pet needs care when your veterinarian’s office is closed.

Common pet emergencies

One of the common conditions seen by emergency vets is gastroenteritis, or vomiting and diarrhea. In some cases, the pet may have relatively mild signs; a dog may have had just a few episodes of diarrhea, 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 may require more aggressive treatment. A dog that is dehydrated after several days of vomiting and diarrhea will need a full medical workup to determine the underlying cause of the illness, plus hospitalization and intravenous (IV) fluids.

Emergency vets also treat trauma and injuries. These cases may range from pad abrasions, to fractures, to severe trauma such as dog fights or being hit by a car.. Many of these cases will need surgery, but some can be stabilized 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. These conditions vary significantly in their workup and treatment, but an emergency veterinarian is prepared to handle any of these cases. 

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 ensure your pet is stable and that nothing else is wrong. In many cases, the veterinarian may listen to your pet’s heart and lungs and check their mucous membrane color before focusing on the part of the body that is related to your pet’s presenting complaint. 

Based on the exam findings, the veterinarian will then recommend appropriate diagnostic tests and treatments. 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. Once your veterinarian has put together a treatment plan for your pet, the costs of these services will be reviewed with you and you can decide whether or not to authorize the recommended services.

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. This estimate is also several years old, and veterinary costs (like other costs) have likely increased since the time this study was performed. Some emergency clinic visits, such as a straightforward case of acute diarrhea, may cost just $200-300 for an exam and medications. If your pet is hit by a car and requires emergency surgery followed by hospitalization, however, your costs may easily climb to $5,000 or more. Therefore, the costs of emergency care are rarely easy to predict. 

Preparing for emergencies is an important aspect of responsible pet ownership. 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 authorize 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 the cost of 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! Alternatively, you could use a credit card or CareCredit® to fund your pet’s care until you are reimbursed by your insurance company. 

 What does pet insurance cover? 

Pet insurance primarily exists to cover illnesses and injuries. However, there are a few exceptions. Both pre-existing conditions and hereditary conditions are often excluded from pet insurance coverage.

Pre-existing conditions are conditions that were diagnosed before you purchased the insurance policy. For example, if your dog was diagnosed with luxating patellas before you purchased the policy, your insurance policy will likely never cover any treatment related to your pet’s knees. If your pet has had a history of repeated urinary tract infections, your insurance provider may refuse to cover any future urinary issues.

Hereditary conditions are conditions that are genetic, or contained in the DNA. These conditions are 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 do not cover any costs associated with breeding. So, if you plan to breed your dog and she ends up needing an emergency C-section, most insurers won’t cover this. If she develops mastitis after delivering the puppies, this is also unlikely to be covered by pet insurance.

If you purchase pet insurance, it’s important to read through your policy carefully. 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 you are a pet owner who has elected not to purchase pet insurance, you should start building a veterinary emergency fund from an early age. Knowing that the average cost of an emergency is over $1,000, you might set a goal to have $2,000 saved by the time your dog reaches 2 years old. Assuming you obtain your puppy when they are four months old, saving just $100 a month would ensure that you are well-equipped to handle an emergency by the time your dog is two years old. If you can afford to save more on a monthly basis, you can likely reach your goal even sooner (or set a higher savings goal). Don’t use this fund for routine veterinary care like vaccines or parasite preventatives; instead, leave this fund alone and use it only in the case of an emergency. 

If you do not have available savings or a credit card on hand, 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, which may be up to two years. After this interest-free period ends, the interest rate will increase significantly, to a rate that is comparable to a typical credit card. 

If you live elsewhere or are unable to get approved for CareCredit®, consider reaching out to friends and family for help. Some clients use GoFundMe® to reach out to friends, family, and social media contacts. Non-profit foundations are also sometimes available to help fund pets’ veterinary care, but working with a non-profit is not always 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. 

Dr. Barnette is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she received both her B.S. in Zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). She has 15 years of clinical experience as a small animal veterinarian, treating dogs, cats, and occasional exotic patients. She now works as a freelance veterinary writer, creating educational content for veterinarians, veterinary team members, and dedicated pet owners. Dr. Barnette lives in southwest Florida with her husband and daughter (plus two cats, a dog, and a rescued dove!) and enjoys kayaking, biking, and hiking. Learn more about Dr. Barnette at www.linkedin.com/in/catherinebarnette.