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What Is an Emergency Veterinarian?

Aug 07, 2020

A visit to your local veterinarian is typically uneventful. But just like in human health, things happen, and animals may need a medical professional equipped to handle the unexpected.

You may already have an idea of what it means to practice veterinary emergency medicine and critical care. We did a little research to discover more about the role of the emergency veterinarian and the education and training requirements to become one.

What is an Emergency Veterinarian and What Do they Do?

The emergency veterinarian is a specialist that provides medical care to animal patients at animal hospitals and emergency clinics. It's also typical for emergency veterinarians to work with veterinary internal medicine specialists and surgeons at larger veterinary hospitals. These vets may choose to narrow their focus even further by choosing to work with one species or a category of interest such as small animal, large animal, equine, or exotics.

They treat medical conditions including:

  • Acute illness
  • Neurological medical conditions
  • Renal medical problems
  • Medical Trauma
  • Post-Operative complications

An emergency veterinarian also takes referrals from general veterinarians to treat existing animal patients under duress. Some of the typical emergency procedures they may perform include:

  • Assessing patients for trauma injuries
  • Monitoring vital signs
  • Cleaning and suturing wounds
  • Applying bandages or casts
  • Administering anesthesia or sedation medication
The Emergency Veterinarian Work Environment

There isn’t one typical type of day for emergency veterinarians. The work hours for emergency veterinarians can be chaotic. Most emergency vet hospitals are open around the clock, so you can expect to work late evenings, weekends, and even some holidays. The work can be demanding and intense. Emergency veterinarians also tend to put in more work per week than other specialists.

We asked Nigel Smith, Clinician, and Ross Vet Essential Veterinary Skills instructor a bit more about the reality of working in an emergency environment. “In order to effectively determine the clinical needs of our patients in an emergency consultation, the veterinary team needs to examine the patient, stabilize the patient, and secure an accurate history from the client, often simultaneously. Wounds may need to be dressed. The vet must be calm in this difficult time, to accurately determine the needs of the patient, correctly administer treatments at the correct doses, clinically track the progress of the patient by the milestones previously set, all while watching for any deterioration to track and maintain team objectives.”

In short, the vet must multitask to include judicious patient care following a timely and rational approach, team and client management in general, and often spatial management of the patient.  As an emergency veterinarian you will come into contact with animals that are under high levels of stress. Proper safety precautions need to be followed to minimize the risk of injury to both animal and veterinary staff.

Job Prospects and Salary Outlook

Currently, there is a high overall demand for veterinarians, and even more demand for veterinarians in specialty areas.  So how much does an emergency vet make? It will vary by geographic area, years of experience, and specialty area. ER medicine is experiencing critical shortages and emergency veterinarian salaries could jump significantly higher.

What Type of Education Do Emergency Veterinarians Need?

In order to become an emergency veterinarian, a qualified candidate must first receive their Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree and become a licensed veterinarian. Vets at this stage are free to practice emergency medicine without additional training, but you could take it step further by becoming a Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care (DACVECC). This requires the completion of a study in the specialty area of emergency and critical care.  This program starts with a three-year residency program that is administered by an approved emergency medical program.

The veterinary emergency and critical care residency program is designed to train the medical professional to become highly skilled in both human and veterinary intensive care unit (ICU) procedures, develop exceptional critical thinking skills and become highly competent in clinical practice of emergency and critical veterinary care – while maintaining a professional image at all times.

During this residency program, the candidate will focus on several competencies including:

  • Completing on-hands clinical work in a certified veterinary intensive care unit – under the direction and supervision of a board-certified critical care specialist.
  • Improve understanding of pathophysiology and master advanced technical skills that will permit them to provide better emergency care during high-stressful situations.
  • Reviewing case studies, scientific journals, and participate in critical care conferences that will accelerate the critical thinking and communication skill set.
  • Document and submit case reports for peer-review.

Once the residency is completed, the candidate will submit for board certification.

After passing the exam, a veterinarian is granted diplomate status in the veterinary specialty of emergency and critical care. Diplomates must meet continuing education requirements annually to maintain their board-certified status. The continuing education credit requirement ensures that specialists keep abreast of advances and innovations in the field.

If you decide to pursue board certification, you may want to act on it sooner rather than later. Veterinarians who go into private practice find it harder to go back to study. Internships and residency programs are highly competitive and veterinarians already practicing may be at a disadvantage to earn a spot.

Other Skills an Emergency Veterinarian May Need

In addition to your DVM and board certification, there are some other skills you may find helpful in this line of work. It may seem obvious that emergency veterinarians need to be calm under pressure and have the flexibility to adapt to whatever situation that may occur.

According to Dr. Smith, “It is very important that vets providing emergency services remain calm even when working under pressure. The emergency setting is challenging for the patient, the client, support staff and the vet because our patients are often already distressed, in pain and may have breathing, bleeding, other circulatory or neurological problems. Our clients, in the throes of unexpected circumstances, often face an uncertain outcome and harbor immense worry. Let alone for the direct stress caused by the earlier events that led their visit to the emergency service. Clients very likely also experienced a significant period of helplessly watching their loved ones suffer. In many cases, our patients have suffered horrendous injuries and face life or death. Overwhelmed with relief to secure help for their pet, clients in the emergency consultation invariably place their trust and the life of their pet in the hands of a composed and able professional veterinary team.  Emergency vets can best help our clients when we remain internally calm, unflappable, and resilient.”

Emergency pet veterinarians must be compassionate.  They must be able to treat animals with kindness and respect and be sensitive when dealing with animal owners. Communication is also an essential skill. Emergency veterinarians must be able to skillfully navigate recommendations and opinions from other doctors, and also discuss recommendations and explain treatment options.

As an emergency veterinarian, you must also be creative and a problem-solver.  You can’t anticipate the expectations of a client when they come in with a sick or injured animal.  Your recommended treatments may be too expensive and you will need to come up with alternative solutions to provide the care that is needed.

Are you ready for a career in emergency veterinarian medicine?

To jump-start your career as an emergency veterinarian, your journey will start the same as every other type of veterinarian, earning your Doctor of Veterinarian Medicine. Determine which schools you want to apply to, complete the required coursework, and write strong essays.  You can find out more about how to get into vet school and what it takes to make your application stand out.

Interested in Ross Vet to pursue your career veterinary medicine?  Learn More.

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