Oh gosh….is this an emergency??? Identifying common emergencies in our pets

Emergencies are so tough, on all of us – either as a pet owner or as veterinary professionals. They are always scary, so I thought this would be a great topic to cover to help people know what is a true emergency, so we can plan and take action quickly to help our furry friends! We just chatted about this on Friday at our live ‘Ask a Vet’ on Facebook, and I thought posting the list and summary from that discussion would be a nice follow up for those who missed it, or wanted to have a reference! So here goes….as I affectionately referred to it on Friday – a master list of 1000 ways to die in the west 😊

1. Trauma – This is definitely the most broad of the categories. This would include things like being hit by a car or other blunt force trauma, dog fights (or cat fights), caught in a trap, broken bones, choking (bones stuck on the mouth or on the face), bleeding wounds or injuries (recently saw a dog who was cut while sledding!) I could keep going, but I think you get the idea.


What can I do? – If your pet is bleeding, wrap the area with a towel or bandaging material – apply pressure to the wound, just like you would for a person, and get them to the vet!


2. Severe vomiting/diarrhea – This can also be from many things…toxin exposure, foreign body ingestion, bloat (retching wound be happening too), pancreatitis, severe organ disease. Of note here – bloat occurs in larger breed, barrel chested dogs (think Dobermans, great Danes, etc) – this is really a true emergency – they will often by trying to vomit but nothing comes up, and can have a distended appearance to their abdomen. HGE – short for hemorrhagic gastroenteritis – is a fancy term for severe bloody diarrhea. This can be caused by many different things, but often presents as severe, profuse, bloody diarrhea – this one is an emergency too, as they typically need fluids and supportive care to get them back on track! Of note – not all dogs or cats with vomiting and diarrhea are an emergency, this is those severe cases that are vomiting over and over again, or can’t keep down even water, or are having profuse diarrhea – those need to come in!


What can I do? – If it’s severe, honestly they just need to come in! For more mild cases, you can sometimes start with a bland diet, or a dose or two of Pepcid (NOT Pepcid AC – and this should be with the guidance of your veterinarian for dosing) – but if they are worsening or are not resolving, they need to come in!


3. Unable to walk/down – This one can be scary and dramatic! The most often cause is neurologic – some sort of spinal injury which can be traumatic (think hit by a car), or can be from a chronic injury that becomes an acute problem (think a long-backed dog like a dachshund who suddenly can’t walk). This can also be from other neurologic injuries/tumors, or other bony injuries/fractures. To help determine if it is neurologic vs weakness, you can see if your pet can move their hind legs at all, and if you gently pinch their toes – do they respond? If they don’t pull away, that is a sign that it could be neurologic and they need to get into the vet ASAP! In cats, it is good to note that they can have a condition called a saddle thrombus, where a clot gets lodged in their vessels going to their legs and they will have no feeling, no movement, and no blood flow to their hind legs – their legs will even feel cold to the touch. Conditions that cause weakness can look similar here too – like Lyme disease is a good example – severe Lyme disease can look like a dog who is painful everywhere and can’t walk, or can’t get up! Something causing internal blood loss can look like this too – a hemo-abdomen is the most common cause here, which is usually from something scary like a bleeding mass in the abdomen. These animals will struggle to get up because of weakness, and if you check their gum color (in their mouths) – it will be WHITE instead of the normal pink color!


What can I do? – This one is tough…really the best thing you can do is safely get them to the vet. If they are appearing neurologic, it’s important to wrap them up in soft blankets and to try to keep them stable during transport.


4. Severe allergic reaction – Think facial swelling, swelling at the site of a sting/bite or vaccine, vomiting…this is most often caused by a bee sting, bug bite, or vaccine. But don’t forget about snake bites! Not as common here, but they happen too. Some toxins can also cause reactions, or even medications too!


What can I do? – A call to the vet is warranted here, even if it’s mild. With more mild reactions, you can sometimes just be advised to give Benadryl and that is enough, but if the swelling is severe or they are vomiting, they need to come in! You should always call first, and we can advise you!


5. Respiratory distress/breathing difficulties – This one can be really scary too – think heavy panting, raspy breathing, collapse (syncopal episodes), or even heavy coughing where they can’t catch their breath. Any cat who is open mouthed breathing is an emergency. Period. They should NEVER open mouthed breathe – so if they are, there is a problem! Any time an animal is exerting a lot of effort to breathe, they should be examined. Abdominal breathing is a big warning sign here – this is where they are using their abdomen to breathe – taking big, labored breaths, or extending their head and neck. These can be from things like severe pneumonia, fluid in the chest from a tumor or organ disease, and heart disease is a big one!


What can I do? – Bring them in. This category doesn’t have a lot you can do at home – they could need oxygen, and they definitely need xrays and more testing to figure out what is going on!

6. Seizures – Seizures can look like many different things. The most known seizure activity is the lying on the side, paddling of the legs, possibly urinating and defecating, or even vocalizing. But seizures can also look like head tremors, or focal seizures – just one area twitching or shaking, or even can look similar to an episode of collapse, like a syncopal episode. If your dog or cat doesn’t have a history of seizures, they should be seen. Or if they do have a history, but they are having severe, recurrent seizures – cluster seizures – they should be seen! Toxins can cause seizures, as well as severe organ disease, or it can just be epilepsy – so it’s important to have it diagnosed and them examined!


What can I do? – When an animal is actively seizing they are often out of it – so just sitting with them, wrapping them in a blanket so they can’t hurt themselves, or saying calming words can be helpful. Don’t try to move them until they are done, and call us right away to bring them in if this is new or severe!


7. Eye issues – Some eye issues or no big deal and are not an emergency – mild discharge or redness is not one that needs to rush in! However, if they have a bulging eye, severe redness, blood in the eye, squinting or extreme pain, pawing at the eye, or even proptosis (which is where the eye actually has been popped out of the eye socket – this usually only occurs secondary to trauma!). A ruptured globe is notable here too – if it looks like the eye is no longer smooth, and eye contents are coming out of the eye…emergency.


What can I do? – Call us, and prevent them from causing more damage by rubbing at it! If you have a cone at home, put it on until you get in. If you don’t, hold them or sit with them on your way in to make sure they aren’t unintentionally making it worse by pawing or rubbing.


8. Toxin exposure or ingestion of objects – This is another really broad category of things! For foreign bodies, cats will often eat strings or ribbons which can lead to an obstruction or bowel blockage! Dogs do this too, and even more than cats – rubber toys, ropes, other non-digestible items - pacifiers, peach pits, cassette tapes, underwear, feminine products, socks or other items of clothing…the list goes on and on! Those are just things I’ve removed! If they eat something without you knowing, this could just look like a dog who stops eating and is vomiting (see item #2), but there are times where you see them eat it, or know they ate it and that should have action taken right away! Toxins are things like an overdose of medications (human or veterinary) – watch out for chewable meds like carprofen or other NSAIDs! And don’t forget that Tylenol and Advil are toxic – don’t EVER give those to our pets! Poisons fall in this category too, like rat or mouse poison, anti-freeze (it tastes sweet, so keep it secured!), drugs (marijuana – especially edibles, other elicit drugs too), and foods or plants that are toxic. With cats, think about poinsettias and lilies, and with dogs or cats be sure to avoid foods like chocolate, raisins, grapes, onions, avocados, and all alcohols, to name a few.


What can I do? – If you know your pet just ate something that falls on this list – call us right away! Sometimes we can induce vomiting and avoid a whole lot of heartache….but if it has been several hours, or something is found missing later, or we don’t know until they are acting sick, then a lot of times it’s providing support and giving them time – so they often need to be hospitalized!


9. Blocked cat signs – This one is specific, but definitely emergent. The MO here is: male cat, unable to urinate or dribbling urine, straining in the box, vocalizing, and/or vomiting. This can progress to them being laterally recumbent, or possibly even comatose. This is when their urethra is blocked by grit or stones, and they can’t urinate – so toxins build up, and this can be deadly, quickly.


What can I do? – Bring them in right away!! This needs immediate and urgent care to give them a chance – they need help to pee ASAP to get those toxins out of there, and will need our help and catheters, sedation, etc to do it!


10. Heat stroke – Heat stroke is so deceptive because I think people associate it only with really hot days, but warm days (even like 70 degrees!) can be enough to cause an issue! This is most often seen in the short snouted breeds who already struggle to breathe a bit (think pugs, boxers, mastiffs, bulldogs, etc), but any breed can be affected if they get truly overheated! You would see heavy panting, an elevated temperature, bright red gums/mucous membranes in their mouth, and eventually it could lead to collapse, seizures, or even death. Being left in a car is one common example, but I’ve seen it even on a warm day with a dog who was in a house with no A/C, or from a dog who was out playing long and hard on a very hot day!


What can I do? – Start to try cooling them off while you call us and head in ASAP. Soak some towels in cool water and wrap them around their body, in their armpits, and around their feet! If you have rubbing alcohol, you can put a small amount on their paw pads (they sweat there, and it helps with cooling), and blast the A/C in the car on your way!

I know in some ways this list is probably a little scary…but I think knowledge is power! The more you know some of the warning signs of common emergencies, the more we can take action quickly to help keep our pets safe, or intervene when something is happening that they need our help! When in doubt, call us! We are always here to help, and can give advice to help guide you on what needs to come in, or not! Stay safe out there everyone, and let me know if you have follow up questions, I know this is a big topic!

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