How Do I Know When It's Really an Emergency?

Dog Emergency

Q. There are no 24-hour emergency veterinary clinics in my area. My veterinary hospital says it’s OK to call at night if it’s an emergency, but how do I know if it's really an emergency?

A. If you're not a veterinarian yourself, it can sometimes be hard to tell a mild health problem from an emergency. But there are a few guidelines I can offer. You need to call your veterinarian if your pet has any of the following symptoms:

  • Seizure, fainting or collapse.
  • Eye injury, no matter how mild.
  • Vomiting or diarrhea — anything more than two or three times within an hour or so. 
  • Allergic reactions, such as swelling around the face, or hives, most easily seen on the belly.
  • Any suspected poisoning, including antifreeze, rodent or snail bait, or human medication. Cats are especially sensitive to insecticides (such as flea-control medication for dogs) or any petroleum distillate, such as kerosene and gasoline.
  • Snake or venomous spider bites.
  • Thermal stress — from being either too cold or too hot — even if the pet seems to have recovered. (The internal story could be quite different.)
  • Any wound or laceration that is open and bleeding, or any animal bite.
  • Trauma, such as being hit by a car, even if the pet seems fine. (Again, the situation could be quite different on the inside.)
  • Any respiratory problem, such as sudden, prolonged coughing, trouble breathing or near drowning.
  • Straining to urinate or defecate.
  • Hunched-up appearance indicating abdominal pain, especially if the belly seems tight or distended.

When in doubt, err on the side of caution, always. Better to be dead wrong about a minor medical problem than to have a pet who's dead because you guessed wrong about a major one. If you're not sure what to do, call. Your veterinarian may need to see you immediately — and it's better to let him make that decision.


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