13 Signs of a Veterinary Emergency

    As pet owners, it is not always easy to tell when our loved ones are in need of medical attention. Animals, unlike us, instinctively conceal their physical pain or distress. For this reason, we recommend calling a vet if you observe your animal doing anything abnormal. Listed below are symptoms which indicate that your pet may be experiencing a serious and life-threatening medical crisis; if you observe any of these symptoms, we strongly recommend you immediately take your pet to the nearest veterinarian. If you can, it’s a good idea to call ahead to let your vet know that you are coming and that your pet may need to be triaged and seen immediately; the front desk staff will help confirm that this is a true emergency – or let you know if it is not – and will alert the doctors of your pet’s impending arrival.

    Symptoms indicative of a medical emergency

    Note: Each of the symptoms discussed below is a possible emergency and should be treated as such; symptoms are not listed in any order of severity. Also note that the first two apply only to cats, the third only to large dogs, and the rest apply to both cats and dogs. 

    Respiratory distress in cats: Felines should never be openly panting or breathing heavily. If a cat is open-mouth breathing, it needs to be seen immediately.

    Straining to urinate in cats, especially male-neutered cats: If you notice your male cat trying to urinate without success (standing in litter box and straining, yowling), it is possible that he may have a blocked urinary tract. This can be fatal if left untreated.

    “Bloat”: Gastric Dilatation Volvulus (GDV), or “bloat” is a condition that most commonly affects large breed dogs. Its clearest sign is your dog appearing to have a large or bloated stomach. Other signs of bloat include: continually retching and trying to vomit without success, panting and heavy breathing, and restlessness. If you notice any of these symptoms, please bring your dog to a veterinarian right away.

    Unable to use rear legs: In cats this can be indicative of a condition called saddle thrombus— this occurs when a major artery is clogged, cutting off blood circulation. For both dogs and cats, it may indicate a serious spinal injury.

    Pale, Blue, Grey, or discolored gums: If you want a good point of reference for what healthy gums look like, take a moment to press on your pet’s gums and watch as the color leaves and then quickly returns once you have stopped applying pressure. If you ever notice that your pet’s gums seem grey or blue and/or applying pressure to them barely changes their color, you should take them in right away. Lack of color in the gums can be the result of shock or an internal hemorrhage.

    Collapse and/or extreme lethargy: One of the most important indicators of your pet’s overall health is their energy level. Lethargy and tiredness often means that there is something going on with your pet. If you find your pet extremely lethargic or tired, they need to be seen by a doctor immediately.  There are many possible causes for such symptoms, some of which are organ failure, internal bleeding, and severe allergic reactions that can result in shock, collapse, and inability to breathe.

    Intense vomiting and diarrhea, especially when presenting with bloody or black tar-like stool: Bloody stool is not always indicative of a serious medical condition, but if it is accompanied by excessive vomiting and diarrhea it may be cause for concern. Black or tar-like feces is a more definitive sign of an emergency, as it may result from internal bleeding or the presence of a non-digestible foreign body (such as metal or plastic) that your pet may have ingested.

    Seizures, strokes, and unresponsiveness: If your pet seizes up and seems unresponsive to outside stimuli (petting, shaking, or calling their name), they may have experienced a seizure or stroke. This can be indicative of toxins, tumors, epilepsy, or other serious medical conditions.

    Open wounds or extreme trauma: These could be the result of a fall from a great height, being hit by a car, getting into a fight with another animal, or something equally serious. Open wounds, even if they are relatively small, should be seen by a veterinarian to ensure proper healing and to prevent infection. If you know that your pet experienced some kind of trauma (for example being hit by a car) but he/she is not showing any outward signs of pain, it is still extremely important to have them checked by a veterinarian. Trauma can often cause internal bleeding and other problems which may not be readily apparent.

    Problems during pregnancy, especially seizures during labor: If your female pet is pregnant and/or in labor, there is always the risk that a problem (for example, calcium deficiency) will occur during their pregnancy.  Prolonged labor without giving birth can be especially dangerous, and may result in serious calcium deficiencies and seizures. If a dog or cat is ever in labor for more than 60 minutes without producing a baby, they should be taken to a veterinarian right away.

    Pyometra: Female pets that have not been spayed run the risk of developing a life-threatening condition known as pyometra. If you observe that your unsprayed female dog is having discharge from their vagina, and/or is feverish and lethargic, she should be seen immediately by a veterinarian.

    Known toxin ingestion: If you know or suspect that your pet has eaten something that it wasn’t supposed to, you may need to seek immediate medical care depending on the item ingested. Things like anti-freeze, snail/rat bait, chocolate, alcohol, and drugs all have a high likelihood of being dangerous to your animal’s health. While our veterinarians can determine the relative toxicity of chocolate based on your pet’s weight and the amount of chocolate ingested, for any other items you will need to call a poison control hotline to consult with a trained toxicologist who will be able to provide direction on the appropriate course of action. The two hotlines which we most highly recommend are:

    Pet Poison Hotline: 855-764-7661/ $49 consultation fee    

    ASPCA poison control hotline: 888-426-4435/ $65 consultation fee

    Known foreign body ingestion: A foreign body is an item which your pet’s digestive system is incapable of digesting and disposing of, and which may end up stuck inside of your pet’s body. A few examples of such objects are toys, pieces of string, needles, or shards of glass.  The ingestion of a foreign body can lead to very serious complications; if you know that your pet has ingested something that seems difficult to digest, it is always a good idea to call a veterinarian immediately to consult with their staff. Some possible signs of a foreign body ingestion include regurgitating food and water, lack of any bowel movements, and a painful abdomen.  


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