Out-of-hours and emergency vet bills: why do they cost so much and will pet insurance cover them?

Irina Wells
20 December 2021 - 6 min read

Pet owners may be aware of the costs of standard vet care, however, the cost of out-of-hours vet services can come as a shock.

But pets don't always stick to office hours, so it is good to find out what you can do if your pet needs treatment during bank holidays, weekends or at night.

Unlimited free video vet consultations 24/7.

Video vet
Video vet

We look at how much an emergency visit to the vet might cost and whether your insurance would cover it.

A pet owner from Kent told The Guardian in 2018 that she was quoted a price of over £1,800 for a 48-hour hospitalisation of her cat at Vets Now. This may seem like a lot, but depending on the care a pet requires, out-of-hours the bill may even exceed that.

Out-of-hours vet care is more expensive because the vets and nurses work nights, weekends and bank holidays, when it costs to pay them.

Most out-of-hours services have an initial consultation fee that may be higher than your vet's standard consultation fee. Even if the emergency vet says your pet is well and no treatment is needed, you would still have to pay the initial fee.

If you are worried about your pet's health but are not sure it needs the vet, you could use a digital vet clinic like FirstVet.

FirstVet charges £36 per consultation on weekends, holidays and outside of 9am and 6pm. With the FirstVet app, you can video chat with a vet if you are worried about your pet’s health but aren’t sure if they need to visit a vet.

If your pet is insured with ManyPets, you get 24/7 unlimited free access to FirstVet all year round.

FirstVet can help with are minor injuries, vomiting, diarrhoea, coughing and sneezing, eye/ear problems. FirstVet can provide advice, treatment recommendations and a referral to your local vet practice, if necessary.

But if your pet is seriously injured and needs immediate medical assistance, you should take them straight to the nearest out-of-hours vet. Many local practices work with Vets Now.

Vets Now provides specialist emergency pet care by partnering with daytime veterinary practices and taking over their clinics through the night, at weekends and on bank holidays to provide out-of-hours veterinary help, much like a pet A&E. They also have three 24/7 emergency hospitals - in Glasgow, Manchester and Swindon - where they provide round-the-clock emergency pet care.

As quoted by the Guardian, the British Veterinary Association says that third-party emergency vet services are vital to small vet clinics' ability to cover out-of-hours emergencies for pet owners.

At ManyPets, our pet insurance will cover out-of-our fees, as will the providers in our best dog insurance article.

Christmas and New Year's opening times

Vets Now says their emergency clinics will remain open on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day. And clinics in Scotland will also be open on the 2nd January.

If your local practice works with Vets Now to cover out-of-hours emergencies, you would need to check with them to find out what their opening times will be.

If you're based in Bolton or Dewsbury, the Animal Trust runs emergency services there. It has not published holiday opening times but it says their clinics are open 24/7. In Shrewsbury, it has teamed up with Vets Now. If you've used an Animal Trust surgery in 2019, you might be eligible for lower fees. Learn more about Animal Trust's emergency services here.

Goddard Veterinary Group also runs three 24/7 emergency hospitals in Greater London. The Mandeville Veterinary Hospital in Noholt, Stone Lion Veterinary Hospital in Wimbledon and Wanstead Veterinary Hospital in Wanstead. They are open 24/7, 365 days a year with no reduced hours over the festive season.

How much can out-of-hours vet treatment cost?

Digital clinic FirstVet consultations cost £24 between 9am and 6pm and £36 after 6pm and on weekends and bank holidays. Customers who have ManyPets pet insurance get free consultations with FirstVet, 24/7 all year round for the pets on their policy.

Their vet might refer you to a physical practice if they think your pet needs to be treated as soon as possible.

Emergency practice Vets Now charges between £100 and £160 and the Animal Trust charges a consultation fee between £79 and £139 for out-of-hours emergencies.

As a rule of thumb, if you have to go to a physical practice, emergency vet services are pricier than standard vet fees or video or phone vets, just like an emergency dentist would be for humans. This is also why out-of-hours vet services normally charge extra fees in addition to their consultation fee. And in the case of the pet owner from Kent, the overall bill can quickly escalate with tests, treatment and hospitalisation added.

Vets Now explains its fees are high because their staff only work nights, weekends and bank holidays (and remain open in spite of whether they see two or 10 pets during a shift), making it impossible for them to subsidise their costs from the volume of pets a vet surgery would normally see during the day.

Furthermore, while most out-of-hours vet centres offer a good basic level of emergency services, Vets Now says they provide the full range of care that could be found in a vet clinic during normal hours, but round-the-clock. They also say they have in their hospitals "the latest, state-of-the-art equipment" to ensure the highest quality of care.

They advise you give them a call so they can assess your situation and recommend if your pet can wait or needs to be brought in as soon as possible. After the initial out-of-hours vet fee the bill you incur will depend entirely on your pet's condition. Whether, and how much, your insurance can pay out to cover it depends on several factors.

If your pet is unconscious, in pain, bleeding or has been poisoned you need to take it to the vet immediately.

Find out what festive foods are toxic to dogs.

Will pet insurance cover the costs?

If you have valid pet insurance, you might be under the impression that your insurer will definitely cover your claim. But depending on the situation and your policy, this may not be the case.

The terms and conditions for covering out-of-hours vet fees are normally found in a policy's 'significant exclusions and limitations' or 'what we will not cover' section and may say something like: 'the cost of vet treatment outside normal surgery hours except where a vet considers your pet cannot wait until normal surgery hours' (M&S pet insurance) or 'Your policy does not cover the additional cost of treatment outside normal surgery hours, unless your vet considers that treatment cannot wait until normal surgery hours' (John Lewis Finance).

This means that you might still have to foot the bill yourself if your pet is unwell but is considered to be able to wait until normal opening hours.

If your pet suffers a serious accident and needs immediate help, your pet insurance is likely to be of help. But only up to the amount of your vet fees limit.

Less comprehensive pet insurance policies usually have smaller vet fee limits, potentially easier to exhaust in the case of an out-of-hours emergency and leave you with no protection until renewal; e.g. if your vet fee limit is £2,000 per policy year but you incur an emergency vet bill over that amount.

It’s also good to keep in mind that if you’ve already made previous claims, the remainder of your vet fees allowance might be too small to cover the full amount.

Vets Now, for example, encourages the highest level of pet cover possible to help out in unforeseen circumstances.

We believe it truly pays to have a pet insurance policy with a high vet fee limit which is why we created a comprehensive policy with up to £15,000 of cover for vet fees. We also aim to pay out any claim, including out-of-hours vet fee claims for pets who are considered by a vet to need immediate veterinary attention. Find out more about our pet insurance.

£15,000 a year vet fee cover with our Complete policy.

Man and dog high-five
Man and dog high-five

In addition, all insurance policies that we’ve ranked in our best pet insurance policies article come with substantial levels of cover for vet fees and will cover out-of-hours vet service if necessary.

It’s good to remember that veterinary costs are one of the significant expenses involved in pet ownership. A good way to ensure you can afford veterinary help when needed and to the full extent at which it might be required is to have a comprehensive pet insurance policy in place.

Shopping around and carefully reading the small print before you purchase is essential for finding the policy that will best suit your needs.