When a pet needs emergency medical care that doesn't rise to the level of life-saving intervention, the owner typically has a few options. They could schedule the soonest available appointment with the family veterinarian or take the animal to the nearest veterinary emergency hospital, for example.
Another option, however, is emerging: the urgent care veterinary practice. Modeled after the walk-in clinics common within human medicine, veterinary urgent care offers around-the-clock veterinary care for minor injuries and mild illnesses, such as diarrhea, wounds and lacerations, and allergic reactions.
Urgent care practices can provide something between appointment-based primary care practices and emergency practices, explained Dr. Canaan Shores, an instructor and service head for Small Animal Urgent and Convenient Care at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.
"Urgent care practices are intended to treat those pets who have urgent, but not emergent, conditions," Dr. Shores said. "These are conditions that are causing pain or discomfort, so they require prompt care, but do not necessarily require hospitalization or other major interventions."
Urgent care is not a replacement for regular veterinary visits. You won't find an urgent care practice vaccinating cats and dogs or spaying or neutering them; nor do they provide for a patient's long-term veterinary care. After a visit to an urgent care practice, staff members will contact the pet's primary veterinarian, who is responsible for any follow-up needs. If there is no primary veterinarian, staff inform the client about practices in the area.
Cases requiring medical intervention beyond what an urgent care practice can treat are referred to an emergency or specialty practice.
Many veterinary practices have been providing urgent care services for years. Dr. Shores said numerous emergency practices essentially operate as urgent care practices while primary care veterinarians often may make room in their busy schedules to see same-day patients that are ill or injured.
"Having a dedicated urgent care practice can provide better efficiency and, hopefully, deliver better care than having these minor cases pile up at the emergency clinic or overwhelm primary care veterinarians," he said.
At Illinois's veterinary college, they have found the urgent care practice to be a needed option to provide relief for both their emergency room as well as their primary care department, Dr. Shores said.
"The pet-owning public is very thankful to have it as an option as are local primary care veterinarians who can now give their clients an option to have their pet cared for that doesn't involve a trip to the emergency department," he said.
Given its recent emergence in the market for veterinary services as a stand-alone option, there is a fair amount of confusion surrounding the term "urgent care," according to Dr. Jim Dobies, founder and president of UrgentVet, a chain of 51 urgent care practices throughout the Carolinas, Colorado, Florida, Texas, and Virginia.
"General practices and traditional veterinary emergency hospitals sometimes use the term ‘urgent care' in their advertising when it doesn't really reflect the services they offer," Dr. Dobies said.
UrgentVet operates like most human medicine urgent care practices, sticking to minor injuries and mild illnesses that occur during off hours for regular veterinary clinics. UrgentVet are open nights, weekends, and holidays—365 days a year. They do not offer wellness care, vaccines, boarding, or grooming, so we can focus on fast, affordable, and convenient care, he said.
UrgentVet's veterinary staff generally comprises veterinarians with backgrounds in general practice or emergency medicine, Dr. Dobies explained. They have several experienced doctors who are cutting back to two or three days a week but still want the variety of cases seen in UrgentVet clinics. The company offers a mentor program for recent graduates to work alongside experienced doctors for the first few months of employment.
Dr. Suzanne Summe is one of those veterinarians who transitioned from emergency medicine to urgent care work, co-founding Mission Vet Urgent Care in Blue Ash, Ohio. Speaking about her experience, Dr. Summe described urgent care as "ER lite." The pace is fast and the cases more varied than what she normally saw in the emergency clinic.
"In the ER, you might spend several hours on just one case, but in urgent care, you maybe have 20 minutes with a patient," she said.
Anyone considering opening an urgent care practice should decide beforehand the kinds of cases they're equipped to manage, Dr. Summe advised. Reach out to local general practices, informing them about your services, so they can refer clients to you after hours or when their schedule is full. And when referring a patient to an emergency or specialty practice, Dr. Summe said to call ahead to let the practice know the patient is on its way.
Client communication skills are also a must, Dr. Summe said. "We see a fair share of clients with financial difficulties. You're often dealing with emotionally fragile clients in a heightened emotion state, and good communication skills are key," she said.
A version of this story appears in the December 2023 print issue of JAVMA.