Identifying Pet Emergencies: When to See a Vet, Stat!

On any given night at a veterinary emergency hospital, you can find pets in congestive heart failure, animals with back injuries, puppies who have gotten into rat poison, dogs with collapsed tracheas or animals who have been hit by cars. These are all obvious emergencies, but do you know the subtler signs that a trip to the veterinarian is warranted? Here are 12 signs you should never ignore.

Go Now!

Trauma: Any pet who has been hit by a car, fallen out of a window or suffered some other traumatic injury should be seen at once. Even if the animal appears to be fine, he could be suffering from internal injuries or bleeding.

Loss of consciousness or collapse: Collapsing or fainting can signal a long list of emergencies, including dehydration, heat stroke, some types of poisoning, anaphylactic shock from a bee sting, infection from a viral disease such as canine hepatitis, choking, bloat or gastric volvulus, Addison’s disease, hypoglycemia and certain heart abnormalities. If your pet collapses, get him to the veterinarian right away.

Difficulty breathing: This is the most severe and frightening form of pain. If your dog or cat is breathing rapidly, has labored breathing, is straining to breathe or gasping for air, seek veterinary help immediately. Blue or white gums, known as cyanosis, are a sign of oxygen deprivation as well. Causes of breathing difficulty include choking, some types of poisoning and congestive heart failure.

Seizures: Also known as fits or convulsions, seizures result when the brain experiences an abnormal burst of electrical activity. The pet may collapse, become rigid, lose consciousness and even stop breathing for a brief period. The legs may paddle as if the animal is running, and he may drool or lose control of his bladder or bowels. Causes of seizures include brain injuries, heat stroke, poisoning and liver failure, but sometimes they occur for unknown reasons (idiopathic seizures). Seizures that last more than five minutes or that recur rapidly are emergencies.

Bloated or enlarged belly: Some dogs are prone to gastric dilatation, in which the stomach fills with gas and fluid, or volvulus, which occurs when the gassy stomach twists or rotates. The dog may retch without bringing anything up. Both conditions are life-threatening emergencies. Don’t wait to see if it gets better.

Severe vomiting: If your pet vomits repeatedly or forcefully, the vomiting is accompanied by diarrhea, or if the vomit has blood in it, looks and smells like feces, or contains what looks like coffee grounds (actually partially digested blood), it’s an emergency.

Bloody or black, tarry diarrhea: Pets get into all kinds of things that can give them diarrhea. It’s unpleasant to have to clean up a big pile of loose, stinky, unformed stools, but it’s generally not an emergency unless the diarrhea contains blood or looks black and tarry, continues for more than a day or is accompanied by vomiting. Also seek veterinary help if a pet with diarrhea seems weak or depressed or has a fever.

Poisoning: If you know that your pet has ingested something toxic, such as antifreeze, rat poison, Easter lilies, dark chocolate or baking chocolate, or a drug such as your blood pressure medication or ibuprofen, take him to the veterinarian right away.

Heavy bleeding: If a wound is spurting bright red blood, it’s coming from an artery. Apply pressure to the wound with a clean cloth, and get the animal to a veterinarian immediately.

Eye injuries: Emergency situations include dislocated eyeballs, foreign bodies in the eye and chemical burns to the eyes.

Sudden lameness or loss of the ability to walk: The animal may have suffered a disc injury or may have a more unexpected problem. For instance, cats with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy may develop blood clots that lodge in blood vessels that supply the hind legs, causing a sudden onset of paralysis. Any time your dog or cat loses limb function, he should be seen right away.

Straining to urinate or defecate: In male cats especially, but females as well, straining to urinate often signals a urinary tract obstruction. A cat with a lower urinary tract obstruction can die within a short period of time, so it’s a true emergency. Cats who are constipated or who have some kind of large-bowel problem may also strain in the litterbox. Any time you see that straining behavior, it signals the need to get the animal to the veterinarian right away.

Can It Wait?

We as veterinarians never want you to waste your time or money, but we also think that it’s better to err on the side of being safe rather than sorry. That said, my friend and colleague Dr. Tony Johnson, an emergency and critical care specialist at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, notes that some situations aren’t necessarily emergencies.

Reverse sneezing: Formally known as a laryngospasm, a reverse sneeze often sounds as if a dog is struggling to draw in air. The good news is that your dog isn’t dying, not even close. That loud snorting sound, which can go on for a few minutes, is most likely a temporary spasm of the larynx muscles in response to allergies or post-nasal drip. To help end the attack, stroke your dog’s throat to encourage him to swallow or very briefly place your hand over his nostrils.

Unusual behavior: Your pet is just plain acting weird. She’s pacing, she’s clinging to you like there’s no tomorrow, she’s trying to sleep on top of your head — and she doesn’t do those things normally. It’s not unusual for people to bring a pet to the ER for atypical behavior, but if no physical signs accompany the strange behavior, the ER veterinarian is probably going to be confounded by your pet’s actions, too. Maybe she’s sensing an earthquake, a change in the barometric pressure or that ghost that lives up in your attic. There’s just no way to know exactly what’s causing it — at least not until our animals learn to talk.

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