Triage: Determining when cases are urgent or non-urgent

This information is intended to aid your decision-making process. Unless an animal is suffering from an obvious medical emergency, taking a few minutes to collect a thorough history from an owner over the phone, or via other telemedicine tools (in compliance with federal and local VCPR requirements and any temporary allowances in same), will allow you to think through the problem and its possible causes and assist in determining whether an in-person examination or premise visit is necessary and within what timeframe.

Veterinarians should use their professional judgement when determining whether a case is urgent or non-urgent. Telemedicine can be used for both urgent and non-urgent cases if it can address the animal’s medical needs and its use complies with both federal and state requirements. More information about telemedicine can be found at While a variety of communication tools are available for use to conduct telemedicine visits, the AVMA has also compiled a list of providers to assist.

The following questions may help you determine whether an appointment can be postponed until recommendations or requirements for social distancing and medical supply conservation are reduced or lifted. Excepted, of course, is any change in an animal’s condition that may cause a previously non-urgent case to become urgent.  

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, then care for the animal is likely urgent.

  • Is treatment necessary to preserve the life of the animal?
  • Is the animal experiencing serious pain that affects its health, welfare and/or safety?
  • Is euthanasia of the animal necessary to relieve or prevent pain and suffering?
  • Is it necessary to treat the animal to prevent the potential transmission of a zoonotic disease to the owner or general public?
  • For animals used in food production, is this treatment or procedure necessary to maintain a safe and secure food supply?

If evaluation or treatment for the animal is not believed to be immediately urgent, but the situation has the potential to become urgent, consider the following questions to help determine whether in-person examination and/or treatment is necessary.

  • What tests or treatment would impact the patient’s outcome?
  • Could the owner administer necessary treatments to the animal?
  • Is there an increased risk to you and your staff if the animal must be examined and/or treated in-person? How to keep your staff safe during this pandemic
  • If emergency surgery or treatment is indicated, is the aftercare needed feasible given current social distancing and PPE constraints and requirements?
  • Is there an alternative approach that could improve or sustain the animal’s health and welfare in the short term?
  • If not treated now, could the animal develop significant health or welfare issues that would become life-threatening, cause irreversible harm, or interrupt or jeopardize the safety of the food supply during the current state of restrictions?

The AVMA has developed this triage chart to assist you in managing urgent and non-urgent cases.

All services must be provided in compliance with federal, state, and local orders and mandates regarding essential business operations, social distancing, and safety requirements for staff. This material is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace professional judgment.

A note on terminology

Terminology used in state/jurisdictional orders to refer to types of veterinary procedures that may be restricted during the COVID-19 emergency varies. Essential/non-essential, non-elective/elective, and urgent/non-urgent are all in use. Recognizing this, the AVMA has chosen to use urgent/non-urgent when referring to procedures, and essential/non-essential when referring to what type of businesses should be able to operate during a state/jurisdictional order.



Flowchart: Walking through the case

Use this practical flowchart to help identify and manage urgent and non-urgent cases.