How to trust an ER vet you just met

While I’m busy recovering from some back surgery, you have the good fortune of reading posts from some of my favorite doggie bloggers!  Today’s post comes from Dr. Tony Johnson who blogs regularly at   Please make him feel welcome by posting your wonderful comments.  Be back soon! 

Best wishes,

Dr. Nancy Kay

“I’m sorry, ma’am, your pet is going to need surgery”. 

These are words any pet owner dreads hearing, especially on an emergency basis. For a pet owner, a trip to the veterinary ER can be a terrifying and frustrating experience; almost always unplanned… certainly unwelcome…usually expensive. 

Part of the stress of an ER visit comes from having to entrust your pets care, and very possibly their life, to someone you have just met. This is a little bit like embarking on a perilous sea voyage with a captain you know nothing about. It can be a very scary and unsettling prospect.

How can you come through this stressful experience intact? How can you maximize the chance of your pet having a successful outcome and minimize your stress level? 

Hopefully I can give you some pointers so this journey across the stormy seas of veterinary emergency care doesn’t end up on the rocks.


The first thing to know is this: Vets are not the enemy. They are in that ER in the dark of night because they want to help your pet get better.  Sure, there are dishonest veterinarians just like there are dishonest hairdressers and dishonest orchestra conductors, but the vast majority of animal docs are there because of a sincere desire to help.

I think the easiest way to find a path to trust in these circumstances is to plan ahead, so you are armed and empowered with some information before the crisis hits.  Emergencies don’t often give you the benefit of warning, but if you can pre-screen your veterinary ER options you will be ahead of the game.

I recommend contacting your trusted family veterinarian to find out where they send patients after hours.  Consider calling or visiting the ER before an emergency happens to get a feel for how they run their ship. Do they make you feel welcome? Secure? Is the hospital clean and well equipped? If so, then you will likely feel more trusting when a true emergency takes place.

During the emergency visit itself, try and get a feel for your doctor. Do they seem rushed and unfocused, or do they take the time to answer your questions? Do they seem confident, overconfident or insecure? In order to earn your trust, they should be willing and able to answer your questions to your satisfaction. Part of the responsibility falls on you, however, to limit your questions to the important ones and avoid repetition. (We want you to be informed, but time is a precious commodity in the ER). Bring a notebook and write down the questions as you think of them along with the answers.  It can be very difficult to remember all of the pertinent details when you are stressed and emotional.  And remember not to take your stress out on the doctor or staff.  Keep in mind that they are there to help you through this difficult situation. 

When it comes to making treatment decisions, the important words here are ‘options’ and ‘advice’. A good doctor will give you realistic options for care (from the basic to the cutting edge) and advise you as to the risks and benefits of each as you plot a course. Their job is to help you come to a decision you are comfortable with that also meets the medical needs of your pet. 

If the diagnostic and treatment options do not feel right to you, ask if there are any other options to explore.  In many cases (but not all) there are plans A, B and C (and even sometimes D). 

It is a tall order to be asked to trust your beloved pet’s life and health to someone you just met, but with just a little luck and a little knowledge, you can chart a course for a good outcome.

Dr. Tony Johnson

Dr. Tony Johnson received his veterinary degree from Washington State University in 1996 and obtained board certification in the specialty of emergency medicine and critical care in 2003. He completed a residency program in Portland, Oregon prior to becoming an emergency specialist. He is currently a clinical assistant professor at Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine and a consultant and editor for the Veterinary Information Network. He has lectured for several international veterinary conferences and is an active blogger for He is also the recipient of the 2010 Small Animal Speaker of the Year award from the Western Veterinary Conference.   

He used to live in a converted one-room schoolhouse in the middle of a cornfield, but has since taken up occupancy in a normal house in a normal neighborhood with very little corn.  He has a young son named Connor (which is Gaelic for ‘dog lover’) and a beautiful wife named Gretchen, who is also a veterinary emergency and critical care specialist.  

Their animal family consists of: The Cats:Cupid – formerly shot with an arrow, now a feline meatloaf and Crispy – formerly set on fire, now rules the basement with a furry iron fist.       

The Dogs: Rocco – missing a leg from a Buick-induced nerve injury and    NYSE – former hoodlum-owned Pit Bull, now a creampuff.           

The Lower Vertebrates:Fontina –  a cockatiel found in a parking lot  and he has lost count of how many fish they have, although it really isn’t that many, he  just isn’t all that good at counting. 

In his spare time Tony enjoys sleeping, eating and breathing with occasional forays into woodworking, cooking and reading and writing (but not arithmetic).


Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of  Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook 

Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller. 

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10 Comments on “How to trust an ER vet you just met

  1. We feel for our pets in their emergency cases like surgery and all… It is such a difficult time that we don’t want our pets to experience. Consulting a veterinarian is such a relief but we should not expect too much because even though they are doing their best they are not 100 percent correct. I had an experience with a vet one time when I found my bunny in its rabbit hutch very sick. The doctor had a wrong diagnosis but I am still glad she did something to help my bunny.

  2. Also important, though they may not have time to look at them instantly, are vet records, particularly if there is an ongoing issue. Copies of blood tests and vet notes. I ask for copies all the time. This may allay double costs if you decide to go elsewhere. I think it is a carryover from human medicine to require “doing their own tests.” I can think of no reason, for instance, to get double radiographs within a couple of days of the same area.

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  7. Unfortunately we don’t have that many options here within reasonable distance. A teaching hospital that takes referrals only and an emergency vet.

    We weren’t very impressed with them the time we had to go. They weren’t listening to what we were saying and their diagnoses was (fortunately) wrong. Fortunately because their conclusion was kidney failure and perforated intestine.

    They did agree to refer to the teaching hospital though. It was not kidneys that were failing but liver and it was not perforated intestine but an abscess that was showing on the x-ray.

    Sadly the wrong diagnosis and referral came to $800 which, along with other costs, we had to pay for all over again as the teaching hospital did their own diagnostic.

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