STAT! Tips for treating and transferring emergency cases in general practice

Dec23-Singler-ER for GPs-GettyImages-1257046273-Chalabala-Epi.png

Some veterinary professionals thrive under pressure. They love the really sick critical care cases and get genuinely excited when a true emergency comes in the door. If you’re anything like me, however, you are the exact opposite. Your stress level shoots way up and your anxiety goes into overdrive. You’d rather spend 45 minutes discussing the ins and outs of heartworm prevention with a cynical client than try to stabilize a patient who is trying their hardest to die.

Like it or not, however, emergency cases are part of most general practice positions. Some practices may be fortunate enough to have a 24-hour emergency hospital in close enough proximity with availability to take all their urgent and critical cases. For the rest of us, we need to know how to at least stabilize emergent cases, even if they will later be referred.

Hurdles to treating ER cases in GP

I asked Elizabeth Chosa, DVM, a former general practice owner and current ER relief vet, for her insight. She identified some reasons why general practice veterinarians may not always be comfortable treating emergency cases.

“I think confidence is the biggest hurdle for veterinarians in most general practices,” she said. This can come from a lack of regular practice managing emergency cases. Veterinarians may also fear negative feedback (such as a lawsuit, a board complaint, an online smear campaign, or even physical violence) if a patient does not respond well to treatment, and they may also worry about being judged by those to whom they refer their patients for their diagnostic and treatment decisions.

I also spoke with Kate Boatright, VMD, who has worked in both general and ER practice and regularly writes and speaks on these topics. She said time constraints are one of the main hurdles. “You don't want to delay your already-busy schedule and keep clients waiting,” she said.

Other barriers to providing emergency care in general practice can include a lack of appropriate equipment such as an ultrasound, point-of-care bloodwork testing capabilities, and medications. Practices that are short-staffed can have a much harder time providing the intensive care needed to manage some emergency cases.

Printable Handout for
Your Team
(click to download)

Dec23-AAHA NEWStat Veterinary ER tips for GPs.png

Top tips for treating common ER cases in GP

Chosa and Boatright said the most common emergent cases they see in general practice include respiratory distress, blocked cats, and trauma of various kinds. Boatright offers the following quick tips for managing these types of emergencies.

Please note: These tips are meant as inspiration only and should not be construed as dictating an exclusive protocol, course of treatment, or procedure.

Respiratory distress: “Look and listen!”

  • Look at your patient’s breathing pattern and listen to their lungs to try to localize the source of their distress.
  • Handle patients minimally.
  • Give oxygen and sedation (if needed) and do not rush into radiology.
  • It is OK to tap the chest or give medication such as furosemide based on clinical suspicion.

Blocked cats: “Fluids and pain medication.”

  • Try to unblock your patient before transferring them (if applicable), paying close attention to their heart rates.
  • If you have to transfer them before unblocking them, consider performing a decompressive cystocentesis.

Trauma: “Stabilize respiratory and cardiovascular systems first.”

  • Don’t forget to check blood pressure.
  • Resuscitate hypotensive patients, being careful to aim for a lower blood pressure that maintains perfusion to vital organs but won’t disrupt a clot.

Tips for preparing ER cases for transfer

For the cases that start in general practice but will then be transferred to an emergency, Chosa has some recommendations that come from her experience as both an ER vet and a GP vet.

  • Placing an IV catheter, giving a fluid bolus and/or pain medication (if indicated) before transfer can often make a huge difference. “This could make a difference in patient outcomes and will make them more comfortable during transport to the ER,” Chosa said.
  • Provide a list of medications and fluids given (along with their doses and administration times).
  • Provide copies of any diagnostic test results.
  • Even if the whole medical record isn’t complete, a short note with the most important information can save time and prevent clients from spending more money to repeat testing unnecessarily in the ER.

Communicate (with everyone)

Chosa recommends not relying on the client to relay pertinent information to the ER vet. “A short phone call can make a huge difference in understanding what everyone expects and getting on the same page,” she said.

Boatright adds some important reminders: “Don’t be afraid to phone a friend at the local ER and ask for advice before transferring the patient.” It’s also critical to be honest with the client about their pet’s prognosis, the potential cost of further care, she adds. “They may not always hear you, but have the conversation.”

For the times when transfer or referral is not an option, Chosa has some encouraging advice for general practitioners. “You know more than you think,” she reminds us. “Every time you say yes to an emergency, it helps the pet but also helps build your skill set and confidence for the next one.”


Further reading

Top Tips for Trauma

Top Tips for Blocked Cats

The Blocked Cat: Where are We Now?

Is My Clinic Prepared for Emergency Patients?

The First 5 Minutes—You Too Can Save a Life!

Ten Tips to Thrive in Veterinary Emergency Medicine

Managing Emergency Cases in General Practice


Emily Singler, VMD, is a 2001 graduate of Penn State University and a 2005 graduate of University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. Her career in veterinary medicine has included experience in shelter medicine, private practice, and as a relief veterinarian. She currently works as a veterinary writer, consultant, and mentor and enjoys writing for both pet owners and veterinary professionals. Her writing interests include public health, preventive medicine, the human-animal bond, and life as a working mom. She is the author of Pregnancy and Postpartum Considerations for the Veterinary Team, which is being published by CRC Press in November 2023 and is available for preorder now at

Photo credit: © Chalabala E+ via Getty Images Plus

Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors.

NEWStat Interesting/unusual Columnists Patient care Practice management