Like us, our pets can suffer accidents and become ill on any day of the week and at any time of day or night. When this happens you will need to use an emergency or ‘out of hours’ vets. While you may be familiar with the costs of the standard daytime veterinary care for your pet, a trip to an emergency vet is likely to cost you a lot more (although remember there may be alternatives available, Ed.).

In this blog, I will explain what to do if your pet needs urgent veterinary care out of hours, why the associated costs are higher than standard veterinary care, and how you can prepare for an unexpected veterinary emergency.

Where do I go if my pet needs to see a vet and it is outside my normal vets opening hours?

Here in the UK, it is a legal requirement for all veterinary clinics to provide an emergency or ‘out of hours’ service. Some clinics will provide this themselves, or will partner with a local practice. This may mean that you need to travel to a different vet clinic than you would normally go to in the daytime. 

Make sure you find out what you should do to seek veterinary care when it is outside of your vets opening hours. Most veterinary practices will have this information on their website, or if you ring the usual telephone number outside of clinic opening hours a voice message will direct you. Being prepared is key. In a veterinary emergency, you want to know exactly what the procedure is and where you should be driving to.

I’m not sure if my pet needs to be seen urgently or not, what should I do?

If your pet is clearly very unwell, it is best to ring the out of hours telephone number for your veterinary practice. Over the telephone, either they or the emergency clinic, will ask you a series of questions to determine if your pet needs to be seen immediately; or, whether they can be seen within normal opening hours. It is important to ring ahead so that the emergency team can prepare the necessary equipment and staff for your arrival. The out of hours team will also detail the cost of the initial consultation to be seen. But remember, this does not include any treatments or diagnostic tests so the bill could be a lot more depending on the problem.

If you aren’t sure how poorly your pet is, consider using our online Symptom Checker to determine if that phone call really is needed!

What types of out of hours or emergency veterinary services are available?

Some veterinary practices provide routine day care and emergency care on the same premises, either through “on call” vets, who will drive and meet you at the veterinary clinic if needed, or through a dedicated night team. Other veterinary clinics may band together to have a shared out of hours care team, which may mean that you have to drive to a neighbouring clinic in an emergency. 

Nowadays, many veterinary practices outsource their emergency care to large emergency-only veterinary hospital hubs. These emergency hospitals can be thought of like the pet version of A&E; they are staffed with vets and nurses with specific skills in emergency and critical care medicine who are able to provide the expertise needed to deal with emergency situations. These emergency centres are usually open when normal vets are closed for the day and on weekends and bank holidays. 

To access out of hours veterinary services, you need to use the emergency service that your usual veterinary clinic provides.

Why is a consultation to have my pet checked so much higher out of hours?

The cost of a consultation outside of normal working hours is more expensive for a number of reasons:

  • Anti-social working hours – just like plumbers and locksmiths charge emergency call out fees on weekends or night-times, the increased cost of a veterinary consultation partly relates to the increased cost of staffing an emergency service during the night time, weekends and bank holidays.
  • Overheads – Specific emergency only clinics are unable to subsidise the costs of the emergency care through the normal volume of pets a vet surgery would see during the day. Even if no patients are seen, the staff, rent, bills and other overheads need to be paid, so the increased consultation fee reflects the costs required to provide that service.
  • Education – emergency and critical care is a specialist area of veterinary medicine. The veterinary and nursing staff that work out of normal clinic hours are highly trained to deal with complicated and life-threatening conditions and are capable of performing emergency life-saving operations. It not only costs more money to employ members of staff with these additional skills and qualifications, but money also has to be invested in keeping them up to date and highly skilled to deal with any situation and with all the equipment. 
  • Equipment – many clinics will have access to state-of-the art equipment so that they can provide a high quality of care in emergency situations. The financial outlay to have this equipment can be huge and these costs have to be recuperated by the practice.
  • Drugs – emergency veterinary clinics have to stock drugs for almost any eventuality. Some of these drugs are very expensive and a lot are wasted as they go out of date before they can be used. Unfortunately, emergency clinics never know what is going to walk through the door, so they have to be prepared for everything and anything!

It also must be remembered that like any business, income does have to be made so that the veterinary practice can re-invest in equipment, enhance staff expertise and be viable going into the future.

How can I prepare for an unexpected out of hours veterinary bill? 

To prepare for unplanned bills, most vets recommend that your pet is covered with pet insurance. Always read the small print of your insurance policy to check that they will cover the cost of treatment outside of normal surgery hours, the annual limit of your insurance policy and any exclusions. 

In an emergency situation, be prepared that you may need to pay some money upfront as the emergency clinic will be unable to authorise a direct payment with your insurance company outside of their opening hours. Your veterinary team will always provide immediate emergency care to help stabilise your pet and make them more comfortable while they discuss the treatment options and prognosis with you.  

Just like human healthcare, pet healthcare can be costly. Emergency situations require highly skilled veterinary staff and expensive equipment and drugs, which all cost money. Without the veterinary fees, you would not have access to this speciality service for your pet.