When Is It an Emergency?

By Joe Musielak, DVM, Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital, Small-Animal Emergency

Working at a 24/7 emergency hospital for dogs and cats, we are frequently asked questions like: How do I know if it’s an emergency? When should I bring my pet to the hospital?
Certainly there are the easily identifiable life-threatening emergencies, such as difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, bleeding or seizures. Other types of emergencies can be less apparent.
Following are some situations that are considered veterinary emergencies. (Note: This list is not inclusive. If you are concerned about your pet, it’s always better to be on the safe side: Contact or visit your veterinarian!)
  • Even in Western Washington, we see patients every year for heatstroke. Leaving your pet in the sun without shelter, in the car unattended, or in a building that overheats can lead to death. If a pet’s temperature gets to be over 105 degrees, start to worry. Much higher, and permanent brain damage or death can result.
  • If your pet has been hit by a car, he or she should be seen by a veterinarian – even if the pet currently seems fine. Such severe trauma can cause “hidden” injuries that you may be unable to pick up on, or that may require testing to find. Just because these injuries are hidden doesn’t mean they aren’t life-threatening.
  • A veterinary visit is also recommended for other types of trauma, including your pet being hit by a blunt object, being bitten, or falling more than a few feet. These too can have unforeseen complications. If your pet is not using one of its limbs, or it appears grossly obvious that your pet has a broken bone, you should seek emergency care. At the very least, most pets benefit from pain medication prescribed by a veterinarian (not over-the-counter human pain medications). Even if they aren’t showing signs of pain now, they probably will later.
  • In addition to wounds, blood from body orifices that don’t normally bleed is a cause for concern. For example, if your pet has blood in its vomit, feces or urine, this can indicate life-threatening illnesses, or poisoning in some cases.
  • If your pet has eaten something that you either know or suspect is poisonous, don’t wait until symptoms arise. Some poisons (antifreeze, grapes, Easter lilies) are so damaging to your pet that by the time you notice any symptoms, your pet has a much lower chance of surviving. Some substances (rat poison, any kind of human medication, household cleaners, toxic plants, chocolate, insecticide, pesticide, onions) are life-threatening to your pet if untreated.
  • Vomiting, inappetence (not eating) or diarrhea for more than 24 hours are all reasons to seek care sooner rather than later. Vomiting blood or passing bloody feces are also reasons for your pet to be seen by a veterinarian.
  • If your pet is unable to urinate or defecate despite attempts to try, do not wait until the next morning to seek care. Waiting on a pet that cannot urinate can result in death overnight, not to mention the pain your pet will be experiencing. Constipation is only occasionally life-threatening, but it is definitely uncomfortable and can lead to other health problems.
  • For those who own large-breed dogs, you may have heard the terms bloat or GDV or twisted stomach. This is an extreme emergency. The signs of bloat are a suddenly distended abdomen and sometimes nonproductive gagging or dry heaving. If you notice any bloat symptoms, take your pet to his or her regular veterinarian or an emergency facility right away. Waiting even hours can result in death. Time is of the essence with this life-threatening condition, and there is no home treatment for bloat.
  • Extreme pain is another reason to bring your pet to the emergency hospital. But how do you know if your pet is in pain? Signs of pain in animals can include: vocalizing, shaking, inability to lie down and get comfortable, refusing to socialize, head pressing, or any other unusual behavior.
  • Eye problems should always be considered an emergency. In the veterinary hospital, we use special equipment and stains to examine the eyes; you should not attempt to evaluate an eye injury at home. Eye problems can go from seeming relatively minor to irreversible blindness overnight. Additionally, many eye problems are painful if untreated. Just think how much discomfort you experienced the last time a grain of sand got in your eye. Lacerations, ulcers and abrasions to the eye are much worse than that.
Remember, if you are concerned about your pet, it is always better to be on the safe side: Contact or visit your veterinarian.
PVH offers comprehensive care and 24/7 emergency services for dogs and cats: 360.568.3113