How To Know When To Go To The Vet

Updated November 29, 2020

We’ve all been in this dilemma, vets included. It’s late at night, or you’re having a busy week and something just isn’t quite right with your pet.

On one hand:

  • You don’t want to waste your vet’s time.
  • It’s a going to be a big hassle to get to the vet.
  • It could be expensive, especially late at night.


  • Your pet might be suffering.
  • You know they can’t tell you what’s wrong.
  • Animals often hide their illnesses.
  • You’ll never forgive yourself if you miss something important.

You need to know if you’re either over-reacting or instead not reacting fast enough.

How do you recognise the right time to take pets to the vet?

What are the signs of illness in dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets, rodents and birds?

Here are five common scenarios that should help. Can you see the common link?


dog ear problem

A normally playful dog that was a little off colour and was shaking her head.


rabbit at vet

A rabbit with a white spot in her eye.


dog in pain

A dog that wasn’t playing or active like he usually is.


cat in pain

A cat that was sleeping a lot and off his food.


dog peeing frequently

A female dog weeing more often than usual.

None of these pets was obviously unwell but their owners were concerned. We see cases like this every day. Here’s what happened next:

Ella had an ear infection.

Evie had a serious infection called encephalitozoon that can also cause progressive paralysis but is easily treated.

Seth had hurt his back. Read here about how serious back problems can be in dogs.

If Tom didn’t get antibiotics he was going to end up with a nasty cat bite abscess.

Jackie had a urinary tract infection.

They were all in pain, possibly except Evie. They all needed treatment. All except Seth were going to get a lot worse if nothing was done.

So am I saying you should always go to the vet all of the time? No. Here is the common thread:

In each case their owners knew their pets were not ‘themselves’.

As a guardian of a very special animal, you know that animal better than anyone else ever can. You know their personality, normal behaviour, usual activity level etc. So…

How Do I Know When To Go To The Vet?

  • Trust your gut instincts.
  • Changes in behaviour are always meaningful. Pets don’t suddenly behave differently for no reason. Sometimes the cause isn’t a physical ailment, but usually it is.
  • If you are worried, don’t let yourself be talked out of it. Your first impression is usually the best guide.
  • If you aren’t the regular owner, or are running a boarding or kennel facility, you need to be especially careful. In this case you don’t know what normal behaviour is so you have to keep a higher index of suspicion for illness.

If an owner is concerned by something but the vet can’t see the cause, it’s more likely that the vet hasn’t seen it yet than the owner is wrong. It might take a second visit or extra tests to find.

Do I Need To Go To The Emergency Vet?

Most of the time you’ll already know when it can’t wait. If in doubt, call your closest after hours emergency vet. They’re busy and won’t advise you to come unless they can see a good reason.

If you feel bad for asking, remember that vets won’t ever complain that you’re wasting their time. If pet owners always wait until they are 100% sure something is wrong, sometimes they will leave it too long.

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.


One Reply to “How To Know When To Go To The Vet”

  1. Very helpful article and you have captured the thinking on whether or not to visit the vet exactly. You have never made we feel silly for bringing one of my girls in – thank you!

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