Animal Hospital vs Veterinary Clinic—What’s the Difference?

December 1, 2021


December 1, 2021

Should you take your pet to an animal hospital or a veterinary clinic when they are sick? 

Knowing the difference between animal hospitals and veterinary clinics can help you make informed decisions about where your pet should get their care, based on their current and anticipated health needs. 

In general, veterinary clinics address routine health care, such as vaccines, parasite prevention, and basic surgical procedures. However, if your pet is sick or has an emergency, an animal hospital can offer more in-depth or specialized care.

Animal hospitals vs veterinary clinics

Because their services can overlap, the best way to appreciate the differences between animal hospitals and veterinary clinics is by comparing their offerings. In general, the differences are:

  • Animal hospitals — These are larger facilities that provide a more comprehensive range of surgical, therapeutic, and diagnostic services, and provide inpatient and outpatient care. 
  • Veterinary clinics — Clinics tend to be smaller, privately owned, and focused on preventive care, health screenings, and routine surgery.

There's a lot more to the classifications, so let's look at the different types of care each facility typically provides.

Inpatient care

  • Animal hospitals — Animal hospitals are larger facilities that provide inpatient hospitalization for ill and critically injured pets. Hospitals typically have extended hours and a team of veterinarians and licensed technicians who provide round-the-clock specialized care. 
  • Veterinary clinics — Most veterinary clinics do not have the resources or staff to hospitalize pets, and will refer most sick and critical patients to animal hospitals for advanced monitoring and treatment.

Outpatient care

  • Animal hospitals — If animal hospitals offer preventive care, pet owners can make outpatient appointments there. For specialty services, such as oncology and dermatology, a veterinarian’s referral may be required.
  • Veterinary clinics — Most veterinary clinics operate exclusively as outpatient facilities, by appointment, or on a walk-in basis. Clinics may manage sick, non-critical pets as outpatients, or recommend transfer to an animal hospital. 

Preventive care

  • Animal hospitals — Not all animal hospitals offer preventive care. Animal hospitals that describe their services as referral, emergency, or specialty-only focus on the treatment of disease and injury, generally do not offer preventive care. 
  • Veterinary clinics — All veterinary clinics provide preventive care, which encompasses your pet’s annual examination, vaccination, parasite screenings, general dentistry, and routine surgery (i.e., spay and neuter procedures). 


  • Animal hospitals — Hospitals provide a wide range of specialized surgical procedures, and large practices may have board-certified surgeons on staff. Advanced diagnostics, state-of-the-art surgical equipment, and postoperative hospitalization for critically ill pets allow for exceptional care before, during, and after surgery.
  • Veterinary clinics — Clinics limit their surgical services to routine procedures on stable, healthy patients. Common clinic surgeries include spay, neuter, non-invasive tumor removal, and general dental prophylaxis and extractions. 

Diagnostic imaging and testing

  • Animal hospitals — Depending on the facility, animal hospitals may have imaging capabilities, including ultrasound, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and fluoroscopy, on par with human medicine. Animal hospitals have a more extensive in-house laboratory, and can accurately and rapidly assess tests for their complex and critical caseload.
  • Veterinary clinics — Veterinary clinics are typically equipped with an X-ray machine for imaging, and may have in-clinic blood work analyzers. Basic fecal and blood screening tests and microscopic evaluations can be performed in-clinic, but usually that is all. 

Board-certified veterinary specialists

  • Animal hospitals — Larger animal hospitals may offer specialty services where referred patients from veterinary clinics are seen, as well as in-hospital patients. Veterinary specialists are licensed veterinarians who have undergone additional training and residency to become board certified in a specific field, such as:
  • Oncology
  • Surgery
  • Dermatology
  • Internal medicine
  • Radiology
  • Cardiology
  • Neurology
  • Nutrition 
  • Reproduction
  • Critical care
  • Veterinary clinics — Veterinarians who work at veterinary clinics are typically general practice veterinarians who focus on general preventive care and wellness. 

Emergency care

  • Animal hospitals — Similar to human hospitals, animal hospitals typically offer some form of emergency care, such as an as-needed on-call service, extended hours, or a 24-hour emergency department.
  • Veterinary clinics — Rural veterinary clinics may provide an on-call veterinarian, who can meet owners at the facility, whereas small clinics in more developed areas often recommend their clients to the nearest emergency facility for after-hours care.

The pet owner-care provider relationship 

  • Animal hospitals — When comparing animal hospitals versus veterinary clinics, consider what you need in a care provider. Animal hospitals offer a diverse range of care options, technology, and expertise, but are generally larger and busier, with numerous veterinarians and specialists, and more staff. Animal hospitals affiliated with veterinary schools also host students, interns, and residents on their clinical rotations.
  • Veterinary clinics While veterinary clinics are generally smaller, they can offer a more personalized approach that many clients appreciate. Clinic staff can get to know you and your pet through the years, and become a reliable source for pet care advice. The less-hurried pace of a veterinary clinic encourages more discussion of your pet’s general health and wellbeing.

Care costs

  • Animal hospitals — As a general rule, animal hospitals are more expensive than veterinary clinics for comparable services such as routine examinations, screenings, and vaccines. Advanced care at animal hospitals will naturally cost more because of their staff expertise and skill, and the technology they have.
  • Veterinary clinics — Veterinary care average costs vary depending on your geographic location; however, routine health care is typically more affordable at a veterinary clinic.

Always do your research

When deciding where to take your pet for care, research the services that each facility provides. Despite their name, you may find a full-service animal hospital that offers preventive care as well as emergencies, or a veterinary clinic that brings in a travelling veterinary surgeon. 

Veterinary medicine is evolving, and more services are being offered at each level to provide convenience and high level care. Use this information as a general guide, but always do your own research. Before you leave home, contact the facility directly to confirm whether the service your pet needs is provided.

Finding the right care for your pet

Before you begin your search for a hospital or clinic, consider what you and your pet need from your veterinary care provider, which will help you quickly eliminate many options, and find the best match. After factoring in practical concerns (e.g., driving distance), ask the following questions to help guide your decision:

  • Does your pet have any current medical conditions? Pets with complex medical issues or a chronic disease may benefit from all their care being in one location.
  • How old is your pet? — Most pets are considered seniors at 7 years of age, and are more likely to develop chronic health issues. 
  • Is your pet’s breed predisposed to issues that require specialty care? — If issues such as glaucoma, hip dysplasia, or epilepsy are potential concerns, establishing your pet’s care at an animal hospital with the appropriate specialists may be best.
  • Is your pet accident-prone? — Knowing the nearest veterinary emergency service location can save precious time.
  • Do you feel more comfortable in a small clinic with a family-style relationship? — Smaller clinics can provide invaluable personalized care for preventive health, and refer you to specialists as needed.
  • Does seeing the same veterinarian matter to you? — Larger animal hospitals may have a regularly rotating staff.
  • Are you willing to wait for an appointment?  — Large facilities may book weeks in advance for preventive care, while clinics may offer walk-in or same-day care.
  • Do you have a budget for veterinary care? — Animal hospitals tend to be more expensive than veterinary clinics. Small clinics may offer low-cost vaccine clinics, spay and neuter days, and be more amenable to payment plans for established clients.
  • Do you mind driving to other facilities when your pet needs advanced testing? — Selecting a veterinary clinic for your pet’s primary care means travel may be necessary when your pet needs advanced testing, surgery, or care.

What’s in a name? A lot of care and compassion

Deciding where to take your pet for veterinary care can be a difficult decision. Big or small practice? Technology or tradition? Regardless of the scale or technological capability of your veterinary facility, your pet is in good hands. Veterinary professionals from all types, sizes, and styles of practices share the same focus and commitment to providing the best care possible for your pet.  


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Disclaimer: Our content is for informational purposes only — it’s not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.