Identifying Pet Emergencies: When to See a Vet, Stat!

Poisoning: If you know that your pet has ingested something toxic, such as antifreeze, rat poison, Easter lilies, dark chocolate or baking chocolate, or a drug such as your blood pressure medication or ibuprofen, take him to the veterinarian right away.

Heavy bleeding: If a wound is spurting bright red blood, it’s coming from an artery. Apply pressure to the wound with a clean cloth, and get the animal to a veterinarian immediately.


Eye injuries: Emergency situations include dislocated eyeballs, foreign bodies in the eye and chemical burns to the eyes.

Sudden lameness or loss of the ability to walk: The animal may have suffered a disc injury or may have a more unexpected problem. For instance, cats with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy may develop blood clots that lodge in blood vessels that supply the hind legs, causing a sudden onset of paralysis. Any time your dog or cat loses limb function, he should be seen right away.


Straining to urinate or defecate: In male cats especially, but females as well, straining to urinate often signals a urinary tract obstruction. A cat with a lower urinary tract obstruction can die within a short period of time, so it’s a true emergency. Cats who are constipated or who have some kind of large-bowel problem may also strain in the litterbox. Any time you see that straining behavior, it signals the need to get the animal to the veterinarian right away.

Can It Wait?

We as veterinarians never want you to waste your time or money, but we also think that it’s better to err on the side of being safe rather than sorry. That said, my friend and colleague Dr. Tony Johnson, an emergency and critical care specialist at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, notes that some situations aren't necessarily emergencies.


Reverse sneezing: Formally known as a laryngospasm, a reverse sneeze often sounds as if a dog is struggling to draw in air. The good news is that your dog isn’t dying, not even close. That loud snorting sound, which can go on for a few minutes, is most likely a temporary spasm of the larynx muscles in response to allergies or post-nasal drip. To help end the attack, stroke your dog’s throat to encourage him to swallow or very briefly place your hand over his nostrils.

Unusual behavior: Your pet is just plain acting weird. She’s pacing, she’s clinging to you like there’s no tomorrow, she’s trying to sleep on top of your head — and she doesn’t do those things normally. It’s not unusual for people to bring a pet to the ER for atypical behavior, but if no physical signs accompany the strange behavior, the ER veterinarian is probably going to be confounded by your pet’s actions, too. Maybe she’s sensing an earthquake, a change in the barometric pressure or that ghost that lives up in your attic. There’s just no way to know exactly what’s causing it — at least not until our animals learn to talk.

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