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What Types of Conditions Are Considered Pet Emergency?
There are numerous medical issues which require urgent veterinary attention. But some conditions are more common than others.
Some common emergencies warranting immediate veterinary care:
Poisoning or toxicity
Respiratory distress or difficulty breathing
Vehicular trauma (i.e. hit by a car)
Wounds (i.e. dog fight)
Gastric dilatation and volvulus (aka bloat)
Hypocalcemia (aka milk fever)
What Do These Critical Conditions Look Like?
Given the wide variety of pet emergencies, it is no surprise these conditions can manifest in many different ways. Furthermore, there is a lot of overlap of symptoms and different diseases. This means a given symptom can have multiple possible underlying causes.
In this article, we will cover several symptoms which likely indicate a potentially life-threatening problem for your pet.
The collection of symptoms we will discuss in this article is by no means an exhaustive list of possibilities. Therefore, if your pet has any symptoms or you are at all worried about his health, please consult a veterinarian as soon as possible.
If you observe any of the following symptoms, your pet needs emergency treatment immediately.
Severe or Continuous Bleeding
Severe injury or poisoning can lead to significant blood loss and cause pets to go into shock.
Bleeding can be external, say from a dog fight wound. If bleeding is severe or continuous, these are some techniques to help control blood loss.
Bleeding can also be internal. For example, blunt force trauma as seen in “hit by car” cases can cause significant internal bleeding. Signs of internal bleeding include pale gums, weakness, and low body temperature. Some conditions may also result in bloody stool, bloody urine, or coughing up blood. Therefore, these are also concerning signs to consult your vet about.
Respiratory Distress, Difficulty Breathing, or Choking
A common reason dogs and cats come to the emergency room is respiratory distress. Respiratory distress occurs when a pet has difficulty breathing, which can be deadly.
This can happen for a variety of reasons depending on what part of the respiratory tract is affected. For example, a choking dog will have his upper airway blocked whereas a cat with asthma will have lower disease in his lungs.
Common signs of respiratory distress:
Rapid respiratory rate
Neck extended out
Blue gums due to low oxygen
Elbows held outward and away from the body
Open-mouth breathing in cats
Suspected or Known Poisoning
Poisoning occurs when a pet is exposed to something toxic.
The list of pet poisons is extensive. Depending on the type and dose of poison, different organ systems can be affected. For example, grapes may cause kidney failure while chocolate may cause neurologic signs. Therefore, there is no specific set of symptoms definitive for poisoning.
However, if you directly witnessed your pet ingest or come into contact with something toxic, this is an emergency. Additionally, if there is compelling evidence of poisoning, such as empty medication containers, chewed rat poison, or missing candy wrappers, it is best to consult your vet immediately.
Severe Pain or Anxiety
Pain and anxiety can look different in different animals. But classic signs of pain include reluctance to move, vocalization, and behavior changes. Anxious pets may exhibit excessive panting, pacing, and vocalization.
Not only do pain and anxiety often indicate a serious underlying health problem, but they also cause suffering for our companion animals. Thus, pets who seem painful or anxious should be evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible.
There are different types of seizures but most commonly, dogs and cats experience generalized seizures. These pets will become unconscious, stiff, and have drastic body contractions. They may also urinate or defecate on themselves.
If your pet has a single seizure which stops on its own in less than five minutes, please notify your veterinarian regardless. However, if your pet’s seizures are more severe, she will require immediate veterinary care.
Seizure characteristics requiring immediate veterinary attention:
A seizure lasts more than five minutes
More than one seizure within 24 hours
A seizure occurs following head trauma
Lethargy, Weakness, or Collapse
Many disease processes may cause lethargy, weakness, or collapse. And many of these diseases are life-threatening.
For example, collapse may be caused by anaphylaxis or severe heart disease, both of which are potentially fatal.
Severe Vomiting and/or Diarrhea
Most cats and dogs have had an isolated episode of vomiting or a mild case of diarrhea that resolved on its own. But if your pet has more than one episode of vomiting in a day or unproductive retching, there may be a more serious issue at hand.
For instance, gastric dilatation and volvulus (aka GDV or bloat) causes the stomach to enlarge and twist on itself, resulting in unproductive retching. Gastrointestinal foreign bodies also cause vomiting and diarrhea. Both GDV and GI foreign bodies are potentially fatal without early surgical intervention. Another dangerous condition resulting in these symptoms is parvovirus, which commonly affects unvaccinated puppies. All of these conditions are typically accompanied by abdominal pain and decreased appetite.
Severe vomiting and diarrhea can occur with many different types of illnesses. Regardless of the cause, if severe, these symptoms can also lead to rapid dehydration.
Difficulty Using the Bathroom
Any change in bathroom habits is a reason to visit the vet. However, the complete inability to pass urine is an absolute emergency and calls for emergency veterinary clinic visit.
A male cat who is urinating less or not at all needs to be seen by your veterinarian immediately! Male cats commonly experience urinary obstruction and we refer to these cases as “blocked cats.” Urinary obstruction can cause life-threatening electrolyte abnormalities and kidney failure. If your cat is going to the litter box more often, peeing outside the litter box, or only producing small amounts of urine, please consult your vet as soon as possible. Completely blocked cats are very sick and usually have other symptoms like vomiting, anorexia, and a painful abdomen.
Your pets may have other symptoms if they have a problem with their kidneys or urinary tract. For example, dogs or cats with a UTI (urinary tract infection) may strain to urinate, produce bloody urine, or lick their groin.
If your pet is having difficulty defecating or has not been pooping as often, he may also need to see the vet. For example, male dogs with prostatic disease may strain to defecate.
Signs of Eye Problems: Squinting, Redness, Discharge
Vision is critical to your pet’s quality of life and thus, the eyes are precious. Some eye diseases, like glaucoma or lens luxation, can result in vision loss without early intervention. Therefore, if you notice any changes to your pet’s eyes, please see your vet as soon as possible, since some eye problems require emergency veterinary care.
Some eye emergencies are due to trauma. For example, proptosis occurs when the eye pops out of its socket and is more common in certain breeds like French Bulldogs and Pugs. But eye problems can also be infectious, allergic, or immune-mediated.
The list of potential eye emergencies is lengthy. But these are symptoms warranting a trip to the vet.
Symptoms of a possible eye emergency:
Excessive or abnormally colored (yellow or green) discharge
Signs of Dystocia or a Difficult Birth
If you have a pregnant female dog, be sure to familiarize yourself with signs of dystocia, or a difficult birth. Dystocia happens when the dog is unable to deliver puppies, which can lead to the death of your pregnant dog as well as her puppies. Thus, as soon as you learn your dog is pregnant, work with your veterinarian to promote a smooth delivery.
Dystocia is more common if this is your dog’s first litter. Additionally, brachycephalic breeds (e.g. Boston Terriers, Bulldogs) are more prone to dystocia.
On average, a dog’s gestation lasts 63 days. So if your dog has been pregnant for longer than 63 days, dystocia is possible. These are other signs your dog needs to be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Signs of dystocia:
Abdominal contractions for 30 minutes without delivering a puppy
Weak straining for more than 2 hours without delivering a puppy
More than 4 hours between delivery of puppies
A puppy stuck at the vulva
Black or green discharge (lochia) for 3 hours without delivery of a puppy
Bloody or excessive clear discharge
Abnormal Vaginal Discharge or Systemic Signs of Illness in an Intact Female Dog
If your female dog is not spayed, she is at risk of pyometra. Pyometra is when the uterus of an intact female dog becomes infected. This is a serious infection and can be deadly without early treatment.
Therefore, if your dog has pus (white, yellow, or green discharge) coming from her vagina, consult your veterinarian. These animals are very sick and often have lethargy, fever, and decreased appetite. They may also drink more water.
Severe Limping, Wobbly Gait, or Inability to Move Legs
If your pet is suddenly limping on one or more legs, it could be a serious orthopedic problem like a fracture or dislocated joint. Ideally, a fracture requires emergency surgery. If the fracture breaks through the skin, timely treatment is even more critical. This is because open fractures carry a higher risk of infection.
Alternatively, your pet’s gait may be abnormal due to a neurological issue. Any disease affecting the spinal cord can result in a wobbly gait or even paralysis. For example, intervertebral disc disease can cause permanent paralysis if treatment is delayed.
Additional Signs of a Pet Emergency
The list of potential symptoms of a sick or injured pet is endless. But these are other signs that require immediate veterinary evaluation.
Additional situations warranting immediate veterinary care:
No water intake for 24 hours or more
Heatstroke: signs include bright red and dry gums, excessive panting, and drooling
Anaphylactic reactions (i.e. due to bee stings): signs include facial swelling and hives; requires emergency veterinary care to prevent progression to life-threatening anaphylactic shock
Disorientation, other altered mental state, or sudden abnormal behavior
Paraphimosis (penis unable to retract into prepuce)
Be Prepared and Create an Emergency Plan Now
Our pets are beloved members of our family and we would never want them to be in danger. But unfortunately, medical emergencies happen. Be prepared and put together an emergency plan ahead of time. Doing so will decrease stress for you and may help save your pet’s life.
First, double-check the contact information for your primary care veterinarian. Additionally, stay up-to-date with their operating hours.
If your vet is not open 24/7, locate the closest emergency vet clinic. Then, look up their phone number and directions from your house.
Another important resource to familiarize yourself with is the Pet Poison Helpline. In the event of ingestion of poisonous foods or toxicity, call this 24/7 helpline (855-764-7661).
It is recommended to have all of this information compiled on a “cheat sheet” in an easily accessible place. Ensure the entire family and pet sitters know where to find this information.
Tips in the Event of an Emergency
It is completely normal and understandable to worry when our loved one is sick. This includes our fur babies. It is easier said than done but do your best to remain calm. Pets are very in-tune with our emotions and any additional stress can worsen conditions like respiratory distress.
Refer to your emergency contact information and contact your veterinarian or an emergency veterinary hospital. Inform them of the situation and they will advise you on what to do next. In most cases, you will need to transport your pet to the vet as soon as possible.
There are a few helpful tips to safely transport your pet to the veterinarian. Obtain an appropriate carrier ahead of time for these types of situations. For dogs, consider a basket muzzle as well. I highly recommend this regardless of your dog’s normal temperament. Remember, pain can make any dog bite. Neurologic conditions (e.g. seizures) may also benefit from the help of a muzzle. Do your best to move your pet as gently as possible since excessive movement may cause pain or exacerbate his condition.
Unfortunately, our pets cannot explicitly tell us when they are not feeling well. But familiarizing ourselves with some of these symptoms can help. Bottom line: if you think something is wrong with your pet, call your veterinarian. You know your fur baby best and it is better to be safe.