Visits to the veterinarian are usually uneventful—they’re a lot like your own annual trips to the doctor for a physical exam. Of course, not everything always goes according to plan. Accidents happen, and animals need medical professionals equipped to handle the unexpected just like we do. That’s where emergency veterinarians come in.
You probably have a general sense of what it means to practice veterinary emergency medicine and critical care. It must be intense, but you’re unsure of the specifics. What is it really like to work as an emergency veterinarian?
We did some digging to learn more about this fast-paced career. Below, you’ll find an overview of what emergency veterinarians do, the training they go through, and more. Perhaps you’ll discover it’s a field you might want to pursue.
What is an emergency veterinarian?
Critical care and emergency medicine fall under the same umbrella in the veterinary world. Board-certified vets in this field are called Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care (DACVECC). The unique thing about this specialty is that it combines two disciplines, which isn’t the case in human medicine.
"Thus far in veterinary medicine, they are still one specialty."
“Thus far in veterinary medicine, they are still one specialty,” says Dr. Amy Butler, DACVECC and founder of Critical Consults.
While the two areas are related, there are differences. Emergency medicine focuses on urgent needs for something acute. That could be an injury or unexpected illness. Critical care, on the other hand, involves ongoing patient care.
“In the critical care setting, what we’re dealing with is the sickest of the sick,” Dr. Butler explains. She says she may see patients on dialysis or those with bad pneumonia in a critical care setting.
Because most veterinarians who choose this specialty focus on both emergency medicine and critical care, they see a lot of variety. “It’s a great specialty for people who like having a lot of skills and like being exposed to different things,” says Dr. Jessica Beymer, DACVECC at SAGE Centers.
"It’s a great specialty for people who like having a lot of skills and like being exposed to different things."
What is a typical day like for emergency veterinarians?
There isn’t one typical type of day for emergency veterinarians. They work in a variety of roles. Dr. Beymer highlights what a recent day working in the clinic was like.
“I had about 10 in-patients, which ranged from a post-operative cat with a severe bacterial infection and low blood pressure to a young dog who ate a potentially toxic dose of raisins but was feeling just fine,” she recalls. There were also walk-in emergencies and discussions about end-of-life care.
Vets in consulting roles should expect their days to be a little different. Dr. Butler has experience in this position. A lot of her time is spent on the phone guiding different veterinarians through difficult cases. She shares her expertise with universities that don’t have a DACVECC on staff, other types of specialists, and emergency vets who don’t have quite as much experience.
“There are a lot of emergency [vets] who are not specialists, but they're working alone in the middle of the night,” Dr. Butler explains. When those veterinarians encounter really difficult cases, they call her for guidance on how to proceed.
What skills do emergency veterinarians need?
It’s probably no surprise that emergency veterinarians need to be calm under pressure and ready to take on anything that comes through the door. But there are so many other important skills.
"We need a gentle touch in navigating between various opinions."
“Because we're usually working with a lot of other specialists, we need a gentle touch in navigating between various opinions,” Dr. Butler says. She also points out that communication is key for interacting with pet owners.
As an emergency veterinarian, you also need to be adaptable. You never know what a client’s expectations will be when they come in with a sick or injured animal. Your recommended treatments may be out of their price range, particularly if the client doesn’t have pet insurance.
“You must be willing to think creatively,” Dr. Beymer says. “Some clients won’t have the money to cover the care that is really needed.” In these cases, emergency vets may need to come up with alternative solutions.
"You must be willing to think creatively."
It also helps to be flexible about your schedule. “I get the daytime hours, but most emergency vets work nights, weekends, and holidays,” Dr. Beymer notes.
What type of education do emergency veterinarians need?
It’s usually recommended that any student interested in becoming a veterinarian obtain a four-year bachelor’s degree in order to complete all the necessary course prerequisites for vet school. Once enlisted in a veterinary medicine program, you’ll spend three years completing courses in basic science and building practical skills.
The final year is typically devoted to clinical rotations. Upon graduating, you’ll need to pass the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination (NAVLE) and complete any additional location-specific licensing requirements.
Vets at this stage are free to practice emergency medicine without additional training, but Drs. Butler and Beymer took it a step further by becoming DACVECCs. This requires completing a residency and passing a board exam. During residency, you’ll be expected to publish case reports or a peer-reviewed article. Those extra steps might not be for everyone, so make sure you’re certain about pursuing the specialist path.
If you decide to pursue board certification, you may want to act on it sooner rather than later. Vets who get their feet wet in a practice setting could find themselves at a disadvantage.
"It's actually harder to go back after you've been out in private practice."
“Internships and residencies are so competitive to get into that, a lot of times, it's actually harder to go back after you've been out in private practice,” Dr. Butler warns.
Is it worth it to become a Diplomate?
If you think becoming an emergency veterinarian could be a good fit, you should take your time in determining whether pursuing specialist status is right for you. Many veterinarians happily practice emergency medicine without becoming a DACVECC. Dr. Beymer says an insatiable need to know and a desire to learn from great mentors are the key elements for pursuing board certification.
It’s also important that you don’t shut yourself off to other opportunities. Dr. Butler initially thought she was going to pursue neurology.
"Be open to new experiences and listen to what it is that you're good at."
“Be open to new experiences and listen to what it is that you're good at and what it is you like to do,” she suggests. “That may lead you in a completely different direction.”
Are you cut out for an emergency veterinarian career?
No two days are alike for emergency veterinarians. They might be treating a poisoned pet one moment and performing a life-saving operation the next. While not everyone excels under these types of high-stakes scenarios, those who thrive under pressure might find their perfect fit in this veterinary specialty.
Does veterinary emergency medicine and critical care sound like a field you might want to pursue? If so, you’ll need to start your journey the same as every other type of veterinarian. Determine which schools you want to apply to, complete the required coursework, and write strong essays. Find out what it takes to get accepted to veterinary school, by reading our article “The Vet School Requirements Aspiring Animal Doctors Need to Know About.”
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