With the endless list of precarious situations pets get themselves into, pet owners often wonder whether their pet’s current predicament can wait until morning, or if they should seek emergency veterinary care. Here we review some of the most common situations that may have you questioning whether your pet needs emergency medical care, to help you make the best decision for your pet. Please note that this is intended to be a supplemental guide for pet owners, and we always recommend contacting your primary care veterinarian with any questions about your pet. If your primary care veterinarian is unavailable, you may always contact us with questions.
Vomiting can indicate a long list of underlying conditions—some not so serious, but some life-threatening. So, how can you tell the difference? Start by assessing your pet’s overall health status. If she is still active and alert, and acting normally, aside from vomiting once or twice, it is probably safe to monitor the situation from home, or wait to visit your family veterinarian. If your pet is lethargic, reluctant to get up or move around, and seems miserable, this indicates a more serious situation that should be evaluated immediately. Also, if your pet’s vomiting does not improve in 24 hours, or worsens, or if you notice blood in your pet’s vomit, an immediate visit is warranted.
Many limping cases are caused by soft tissue trauma, such as a strained muscle or ligament, and do not constitute an emergency. However, if you suspect your pet’s leg is broken, she should be seen immediately. If your pet was involved in a traumatic incident, such as a car accident, or she wandered off and came home limping, she should be evaluated immediately. Be sure not to administer any over the counter pain medications, such as Tylenol or Advil, as these can be very toxic to pets. If you believe your pet is in serious pain, please call us or your primary care veterinarian.
If your pet is bleeding, apply direct pressure to the wound with a clean towel. If your pet has broken a toenail, you may apply a small amount of cornstarch to the bleeding area with a q-tip to help stop bleeding. Minor cuts and abrasions should stop bleeding quickly, but if bleeding is severe, or does not stop in five minutes, keep pressure on the wound, and take your pet to your family veterinarian, or our emergency department, for immediate care. If your pet’s bleeding is a result of a dog or cat bite, have the wound evaluated immediately, as bites are full of bacteria, and can become infected quickly. If your pet’s wound penetrates into her abdomen or thorax, emergency care is also warranted.
#4: Difficulty breathing
Any pet who has trouble breathing should be rushed to the nearest veterinary hospital. Signs of breathing difficulty include excessive panting, gagging, continuous coughing, wheezing, and open-mouth breathing. Quickly check your pet’s gums—if they are pale, grey, or blue-tinged, your pet is in critical danger, and must be evaluated immediately.
#5: Abdominal pain
If your pet winces when you touch her abdomen, guards her belly, walks with a hunched-up posture, or is reluctant to move, she may have abdominal pain, which can indicate a minor condition, such as gastritis, but can signal a much more serious problem, and your pet should be evaluated. If a life-threatening condition, such as intestinal torsion, gastrointestinal (GI) obstruction, or gastric dilation volvulus (GDV), is present, fast treatment may be critical, to save your pet’s life.
#6: Straining to urinate
If your dog continually tries to urinate unsuccessfully, or your cat cries in the litter box, a urethral blockage may be the cause. If a small urinary stone, or an accumulation of inflammatory debris obstructs your pet’s urethra, urine pressure will build inside the bladder, and become severely painful. In addition, toxins normally eliminated in the urine can build up in your pet’s body, and cause significant illness. Straining to urinate is always considered a medical emergency that warrants immediate attention.
#7: Toxin exposure
Pets find a way to get into a variety of harmful substances, from sniffing out and eating your chocolate stash, stealing one of grandma’s pills, or rolling on the recently treated lawn. If you are concerned that your pet has been exposed to a toxic substance, immediately call your primary care veterinarian, ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, or bring her to see us. Don’t wait for clinical signs to develop, as some toxins cause delayed effects, and fast action may be critical to remove the toxin before being absorbed.
#8: Difficulty delivering puppies or kittens
If your pregnant dog or cat is taking longer than normal to deliver, or seems to be struggling, she should be evaluated. Watch for these signs that indicate your dog is having trouble:
- Abdominal contractions lasting longer than 30 minutes, without delivery of a puppy
- Longer than two hours between puppies
- Longer than four hours since the onset of abdominal contractions, without delivery of a puppy
- Bloody discharge
- Obvious pain signs, such as vocalizing, or excessive licking or biting at the vulvar area
Cats rarely have difficult births, but if your cat is struggling, or seems abnormally painful, have her evaluated.
Seizures can be caused by a variety of conditions, including:
- Toxin exposure
- Head injury
- Brain swelling
- Liver disease
If your pet is having her first seizure, she should be evaluated immediately, to determine the cause. Although epilepsy is not considered an emergency, other potential causes, such as toxicity, brain swelling, and head trauma, must be treated quickly to prevent life-threatening effects. If your pet’s seizure lasts longer than five minutes, or she has more than one seizure in a 24-hour period, she should be evaluated immediately.
#10: Altered mental status
If your pet is extremely lethargic, with no interest in interaction, is difficult to rouse, or otherwise acts abnormally, have her evaluated sooner than later. Altered mental status can be a sign of toxicity, or an underlying neurologic abnormality, and should be addressed immediately.
#11: Allergic reaction
Pets commonly develop an allergic reaction after an insect sting. The most common sign is swelling and hives, particularly on the face or trunk, although a reaction can become more severe, and include vomiting, breathing difficulty, and collapse. If you notice facial swelling or hives, please call your primary care veterinarian, or our emergency department, or come in right away if you are worried. . Some mild cases can be managed at home with over the counter antihistamines, but severe swelling, vomiting, or difficulty breathing should be evaluated right away. Pursuing treatment early, rather than waiting for more severe signs to develop, is best.
If your pet is hit by a car, closed in a door, or dropped down the steps, she should be evaluated immediately. Trauma often causes internal injuries or bleeding that is not immediately apparent, so although your pet may seem fine, for her safety, she should be assessed for unapparent injuries.
If your pet cannot walk or is dragging her back legs, you must rush her to our emergency department. Paralysis is most commonly caused by spinal cord compression from a ruptured intervertebral disc in dogs, or by a blood clot blocking perfusion to the back legs in cats. Both situations constitute an emergency, and the faster treatment can be pursued, the better chance we have to help restore your pet’s ability to walk.
If you still wonder whether your pet should be seen now, or if her condition can wait, call us for guidance.