Choosing the best pet emergency hospital

These are SOME of the medications from Kompis’ last illness.

Almost everyone with a pet is going to have at least one Emergency Vet visit during their pet’s life. It’s a time when you’re minimally very stressed and, more likely, you’re panicked.  You’re not going to be thinking your clearest, and you don’t want anyone taking advantage of that in your time of need! Being prepared in advance is imperative to having the best experience and best outcome for your precious furry family member.  Choosing the best pet emergency hospital is key.


In this blog, I’m sharing my experience & expertise of regularly using the Bay Area’s Pet ER’s for over 20 years (with both my dogs and other people’s pets). Hopefully this guide will not only help you choose the best ER for you, but will also help you be better prepared and look for characteristics and features that you want for your fur baby no matter where you are located.  I highlight the things you should look for (and avoid) when choosing an ER.


Use this to prepare yourself for the inevitable, and increase the chances of your pet recovering quickly with the least trauma & cost.


Here are the main issues I’ve come across, how to best avoid them, and which hospitals did best & worst in each category (see complete list of hospitals and locations at the end of article):


choosing the best pet emergency hospital - wait times

You want to limit your time in the waiting room.

1. Waiting (& waiting… & waiting…) time

No one wants to sit around for hours while their nervous pet shakes, or their badly injured or terribly sick dog gets worse.


So, I suggest calling the ER hospital first and asking if there are already people waiting. Even if there’s no one there when you call, by the time you arrive an emergency or two could have shown up, so there’s no guarantee, but at least they can tell you if they know that it’s going to be a two hour wait to begin with.


Because, let’s face it, they’re all going to do the same things at first: Take your pet’s temperature, get a blood sample, take x-rays, issue subcutaneous fluids if needed, etc.


It doesn’t matter very much where the information is gathered as long as they are competent. The harder part is getting someone who can actually look at the test results and the dog and determine a diagnosis & treatment plan.  You can always take your test results to another doctor afterwards if needed.


The important thing is to make sure your dog is hydrated, stable, and that there is no emergency procedure needed.


The winner in terms of wait time was definitely SAGE. They got me in and out very quickly every time I showed up there.


Although Nor Cal claimed to not have a wait time, and we were indeed the only patients there, they still made us wait 20 minutes before getting into a room and then another 15 minutes to see a doctor.


Pets Unlimited was usually pretty efficient – if they tell you that there isn’t a wait time. But there can be very long wait times there.


The VCA wait times are horrendous. I’ve spent several hours waiting in the lobby. I bet that over my lifetime I’ve spent at least 4 full days of time there.  They make you wait for EVERYTHING – even appointments.  I once was there for over 3 hours to get a (scheduled) ultrasound.  (Update – This place is horrible. Do not go here.  Period.)


One note about AIMS here:  I brought in a  dog who was profusely bleeding from his paw, and they were a dealing with other clients, so they asked me to leave him there.  They were going to put him in a cage by himself and let him bleed.  They acted like I was crazy for wanting to stay with my dog (and hold his paw to keep it from bleeding so much).   They were further annoyed when I requested that they call my cell when they were ready and I’d just wait outside (since they had a small. crowded waiting area).  I finally called Pets Unlimited, and they said they had no wait, so I went there instead.  I never went back to AIMS.  Leaving an injured, bleeding pet in a cage is cruel and unnecessary – and dangerous!


choosing a pet emergency hospital

2. Customer Service – Being courteous and freely giving information

You want your doctor and the staff to be polite to you.  You want them to explain things, answer your questions, and show some compassion.  It seems like basic courtesy and customer service.  But it’s a bit hard to come by.


I found the waiting rooms of Pets Unlimited welcoming in the past, and SAGE was pretty nice as well. The Nor Cal receptionist was pleasant, but the unnecessary wait made it almost intolerable to be there.


The VCA’s service has almost always been horrible. As I’ve sat in the waiting room for hours, I’ve got to witness their interactions with dozens of people. I’ve stood at the desk waiting for someone willing to look up and ask me if I could be helped for several minutes at a time almost every time I was there, as did most other patrons.  (Update – This place is horrible. Do not go here.  Period.)


One story that I tell to depict some of the VCA’s lack of compassion is this one:

After calling ahead, a woman rushed into the VCA with her dog who had ingested rat poison. She came in carrying her small dog, sobbing as she handed the dog over to the technician. Her voice trembled as she asked him “is he going to live?”  She eagerly looked at him waiting for reassurance – and all he did was shrug his shoulders, mumble annoyingly “I don’t know”, take the dog from her, turn, and walk away.


The poor woman was left standing there sobbing with no kind words being said about their willingness to do their best to take good care of her dog, or even to say that many dogs have survived rat poison and give her some reassurance. Their callousness floored me.

After that experience and several others, I had a couple meetings with the hospital manager to go over all the things I experienced & witnessed, and she seemed concerned and took the feedback seriously, but I’ve never seen anything improve even several years later. (Update – It got worse.  Do not go here.)


Also, when I’ve called in to check on my animals in the hospital, or tried to talk to a vet or vet tech while checking out, the VCA ranks as the most horrible customer service I’ve ever experienced. They almost always acted annoyed and insulted that you even want to ask for information or have questions.  They often got confused and contradicted their own instructions at check-out. They rush you off the phone as soon as possible. It was like pulling teeth to get information from doctors who acted like I was rude for asking any questions about my dog’s care or condition.


Pets Unlimited had a better mixture of many doctors who took the time to answer questions and were very respectful, along with some who were a little more curt.


SAGE also had slightly mixed results – the doctors were always willing to answer questions, but some were more friendly than others. One vet in particular was amazing, and spent so much time on the phone with me that I was actually surprised. She asked me for my opinion of my dog’s condition and care and really wanted to jointly make decisions – which was absolutely astounding to me. I had never experienced that before – even as a dog professional myself!  I am really grateful and impressed with that kind of care. That’s how it should be done.


One last note on SAGE – I called the hospital manager to go over feedback on my experience and ask some questions about my bill (because I don’t use Yelp – why not actually talk to people and give them a chance to fix things?) After some phone tag, she was wonderful and even thanked me profusely for the feedback.  More kudos for them!


choosing the best pet emergency hospital - diagnosis

3. Diagnosis

This is where I give everyone an “F”. The only diagnosis I’ve ever gotten for a dog was when my dog had liver cancer and was going to die within 2 weeks. Other than that, every single sickness any of my dogs had went undiagnosed – always after several thousand dollars of tests and care. Even though the dogs did recover, I was never sure what caused the issue or how I could avoid this happening again in the future. It’s absolutely outrageous that this has continued to happen (including 5-6 times with Kompis).


Kompis has recently been seen by several different emergency rooms, regular vets, and holistic vets, and no one can come up with any reason why she gets sick or why she recovers.  This is unacceptable.


Do your best to also keep going to as many vets as you can to get answers.  We need to know how to prevent the sickness or injury from occurring again!  We shouldn’t just throw drugs at the problem and hope it goes away. Which leads to…


choosing an emergency pet hospital

4. Drugs

One thing all the emergency rooms & vets did was offer way too much medication. They kept wanting to throw three or four different anti-nausea meds (at a time!) at the problem this last round. They also even gave more than one kind of painkiller at a time. In one week’s time, she was on: 5 different stomach medications, 4 kinds of painkillers, 2 kinds of antibiotics, and a dose of steroids.  Some of the meds had horrible side effects as well. No wonder she felt terrible!


At one point when Kompis was staying in the hospital, SAGE told me that Kompis’ back seemed very sore and was spasming to the touch, so they wanted to give her an additional painkiller. I asked if they could just please walk her and maybe rub her back. The doctor said that there was no one who could do that and that walking was bad for her back anyway. I told her that Kompis was used to walking over an hour a day and the fact that she’s in a cage with a cone on is what was causing her back to be sore. They refused to help with any natural methods and just injected her with an additional painkiller, only to take her off of it 12 hours later when she became overly lethargic.


As you can see from the video below, exercise is exactly what Kompis needed and it she is now thriving and wanting to walk several miles a day again.


When I brought Kompis home from the hospital, she could barely stand. Her legs kept going out from underneath her. If she tried to walk, she stumbled sideways. I was worried she’d never be able to walk well again. It took 2 weeks of her walking like a little old lady before she occasionally had a little trot to her step. Finally, three weeks after being released, I took a trip to the beach where she walked like her old self, and seems to be fully recovered – including with her appetite.


The lesson here is to try to limit the amount of drugs given to your pet.  Once Kompis was off all the meds, she started eating again.  I think she was just over-drugged!  Do your research & ask questions.  There is no need for 3 types of anti-nausea meds.  Pain killers need to be monitored carefully to ensure your dog isn’t getting too lethargic – or that they re-injure themselves because they can’t feel their leg/stitches/etc.


choosing the best pet emergency hospital

5. Putting your pet’s needs & health first

This one seems obvious, but is another way that you need to be careful. Make sure you’re asking all the questions you want and, if anything seems wrong, push back! Don’t let Drs do extra procedures that can cause harm.


For instance, the VCA constantly mentioned surgery for Kompis last time she was sick – they wanted to biopsy all of her organs, since they couldn’t figure out what was going with all the tests, x-rays & ultrasounds.  But a senior dog in a weakened state should not risk surgery! In fact, during this 2nd round of a similar illness, not one of the 6 vets I worked with EVER mentioned surgery. When I proactively brought it up a few times (to see what they’d say), they all said it was unsafe and unnecessary.


And, here’s where Nor Cal permanently lost any future business or support from me…

I was told by Nor Cal (and other vets agreed) that Kompis should get an ultrasound but, since it wasn’t a life-threatening emergency, they couldn’t call the on-call internal medicine ultrasound specialist to come in on a Friday night.  So, they asked me to leave her there and that, hopefully, they could get a specialist there sometime Saturday afternoon.


Hopefully?  Saturday afternoon??  I asked why I couldn’t just bring her back Saturday afternoon. They said they would only call the specialist for patients in the hospital, so I had to check her in. Their only reasoning (other than they make more money & have more control this way): “What if it’s her gall bladder? It can burst, and she would die”. But, I replied “You will not get the ultrasound until MAYBE Saturday afternoon, so her gall bladder will burst here before then as well.  If you’re that concerned, call the specialist now!”  The flustered Dr had no response for that and just kept saying they would not set up an ultrasound appointment unless I gave them my dog.  I refused, so they told me to call SAGE.


Thank Dog I did.

I hope this helps you feel better prepared for the inevitable ER visit.  Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself.  If you think you’ll be too upset to think clearly, bring a friend who isn’t as close to the situation who can ask the hard questions for you.  Don’t be pushed into anything you don’t feel sure about.  If needed, call another specialist – or even another well informed pet owner (like me!).


Bay Area Emergency Pet Hospitals

-SFVS – aka VCA San Francisco Veterinary Specialists – 600 Alabama St SF
-Animal Internal Medicine and Specialty Services (AIMS) – 9th Ave SF
-Pets Unlimited (now SPCA) – Fillmore St, SF
-Nor Cal Veterinary Emergency + Specialty Hospital – Daly City
SAGE Emergency Pet Care & Veterinary Specialists – San Mateo