Since our beloved pets can’t tell us when something is wrong, we sometimes wonder and worry about what constitutes an emergency for our pets. Some emergencies are quite obvious and should be addressed immediately. Examples include: dog fights, being hit by car or bleeding lacerations. Less obvious signs of a potential emergency situation can stem from intestinal trouble, such as vomiting and diarrhea, ingestion of toxins, and difficulty breathing. When in doubt, the safest choice is to check in with your regular veterinarian, poison control or an emergency clinic.

We may become passive about occassional vomit or loose stool in our pets, when they have intermittent vomiting episodes, such as hairballs in cats. However, pets with vomiting and diarrhea should be very carefully monitored for the need to visit a veterinarian. It is true that animals tend to eat unusual things and often have occasional vomiting without significant illness. But pets can often feel well in spite of heading for serious dehydration. The overall demeanor of pets with gastrointestinal signs is very important to note. Puppies can be more susceptible to intestinal disease due to their limited energy stores when they cannot eat. Pets with decreased energy, reluctance to eat or inability to keep water down are significant emergencies and should be evaluated by a professional.

Dogs ingest toxins more often than cats, but in either case pets may have accessed unusual material without the owners’ knowledge. Signs of toxin ingestion can manifest in numerous ways such as hyperactivity, acute onset of severe vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, inability to keep down water, or drooling. These are signs of a true emergency. If your pet is expressing unusual behavior, then a call or a visit to the veterinarian is indicated. ASPCA poison control reports ingestion of human prescription medications as the top reason for calls to poison control. You can talk to an advisor or veterinarian at poison control about a substance or medication your pet ingested at (888) 426-4435 (a fee may be applied) or check the web site at http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control.

Emergencies that include breathing abnormalities should be treated promptly. Increased effort and bodily strain to breathe dictate an immediate trip to the vet or emergency clinic. Cats are prone to allergic bronchitis which can manifest as a cough or in acute panting and difficulty breathing. A dog who struggles to oxygenate well will want to stay upright and may widen the stance of their front legs attempting to increase the capacity of their chest to move air. Any time a pet is using the entire body or more of the abdominal muscles to breathe that might indicate fluid around the lungs and they should be seen by a veterinarian.

If you are in doubt about your pet, call your regular veterinarian or a local emergency clinic. Make sure you describe all the signs you see and carefully explain your concern. Part of being a pet owner is making sure we are good advocates for our pets. If your concern about your pet is greater than the concern expressed by staff at the veterinary hospital when you call, make sure they understand your concern and address your questions about whether your pet should be seen. If finances are a concern for you – be sure to express that to your veterinarian or the emergency staff, so they can prioritize the tests needed and you are able to work together for the best interest of your pet and a positive outcome. Communication and awareness are important parts of any veterinary visit. Remember, veterinarians also want the best for your pet and a positive healthy outcome whenever possible.

Blog Post Author: 

Merrianne Burtch, DVM, DACVIM