Do any of the following sound familiar? Or have you ever contemplated what you would do if your pet became ill or injured when your primary care clinic is unavailable?

  1. Winnie cut her paw at the dog park. It is not a large cut but looks pretty deep and is bleeding quite a bit. Medical District Vet Clinic is closed or, unfortunately, fully booked. What do I do?
  2. Tiger has not been eating for the past three days. Now it’s Friday night and I am off work and would like her examined as I am getting worried. Where should I take her?
  3. Bowie has not urinated in over 8 hours. He is in and out of the litter box, trying to pee. Where should I go?

I am sure many of you have had similar questions and or situations. Fortunately, multiple options exist for care when you can’t bring your pet to a primary care clinic. To help our clients, we have created handouts listing options for emergency clinics and specialty hospitals in Chicago.

In this blog, I want to help explain the difference between the urgent care and emergency clinics here in the Chicago area and when I would recommend going where.

After-Hours Care Options

Urgent care facilities would typically not be set up to perform surgery or hospitalize overnight but could handle most cases of pet illness. Most cases can be treated as outpatient. If not, urgent care facilities may recommend transfer to a specialty emergency clinic.

Non-specialty emergency clinics are typically open 24 hours and have varied capabilities when it comes to both diagnostics and doctor capabilities. They can handle most emergencies, but do not have the luxury of referring to or consulting with a specialist on staff. In severe cases, they may recommend referral. If your pet is very ill, I suggest that you ask them about referral to a specialty hospital.

Specialty/emergency hospitals will have the capability of performing the most advanced diagnostics and have the benefit of specialty referral when needed. These hospitals have board-certified veterinary specialists, who have 4 to 6 years of specialty training beyond veterinary school.

Think about human medicine and all the specialties. Veterinary medicine is not quite as specialized. Still, our specialties include ophthalmology, surgery, oncology, internal medicine, dermatology, dentistry, radiology, emergency and critical care, and more. These doctors often work with the most complicated, severe cases of illness and disease and manage the cases while hospitalized.

What’s the Cost?

How much do these hospitals cost? I am sure many of you are contemplating this question.

First, I want to point out that Medical District Vet Clinic is not associated with any urgent care or specialty hospitals in Chicago. For this reason, I have limited knowledge of fees. If we refer a case from our clinic directly to an ER/specialty hospital, they will often give a rough estimate.

From my experience with the specialty hospitals and emergency clinics in Chicagoland, I would say they are similarly priced. However, in some cases, the (non-specialty) emergency clinics seem to be more expensive than the specialty hospitals, despite lacking specialty referral.

All these clinics should provide an estimate for care after examining your pet. Do not be afraid to speak up if the cost is out of budget. In some cases, diagnostics can be prioritized, and doctors can discuss options if their first recommendation is not financially feasible.

Dr. Sullivan’s Recommendations

Circling back to the questions posed initially:

Winnie’s cut paw: Any of the urgent or emergency clinics should be able to handle Winnie’s cut paw.

Tiger’s three days of not eating: If your cat hasn’t eaten in three days, take her to see a veterinarian. I would suggest going to an emergency clinic or specialty hospital.

Bowie’s inability to urinate: I would highly recommend a 24-hour specialty hospital. Bowie will likely need a procedure followed by a minimum of 48 hours of hospitalization. I believe the quality of care should be superior at a specialty emergency clinic and the cost similar to that of a non-specialty ER.

—Dr. Drew Sullivan