Vet performing surgery

Q. What are the most common reasons people bring their dogs and cats to the emergency room?

A. For the answer to this one, I checked in with my friend and colleague Dr. Tony Johnson, a board-certified specialist in emergency and critical care at the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine. He confirmed my hunch that E.R. docs see the same thing the rest of us veterinarians do: For both dogs and cats, gastrointestinal problems, or at least their symptoms — vomiting and diarrhea — are the most common cause of emergency room visits.

Always one for a colorful metaphor, Dr. Johnson notes that, “Puke and poop are the bread and butter of any E.R.” Emergency medical specialists are always such cutups, which I guess is why our colleague Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald of Animal Planet fame also works as a stand-up comic.

Back to the E.R. Dr. Johnson says that after GI distress, the next most common thing doctors see would be either trauma (a pet that has been hit by car or injured in a fight) or ADR, or “ain’t doing right” in veterinary parlance — a pet who is exhibiting lethargy, lack of appetite and general unwellness. Eating a potentially poisonous substance would come after that, he said. 

How do you know if your pet needs to go to the E.R.?

Dr. Johnson says that it’s important to remember two simple things: Diarrhea is not an emergency (unless bloody or accompanied by other symptoms), and you need to wait six to 12 hours after your pet vomits to reintroduce food. Start with small sips of water or low-sodium broth followed by bland food like rice and cottage cheese in small, frequent amounts. This will fix most cases of acute gastroenteritis, without a trip to the E.R.

If, however, your pet’s GI problems are accompanied by lethargy, pain, trouble breathing or a distended abdomen, then you do indeed have an emergency, and your pet needs help right away. Dr. Johnson included “speaking in tongues” on his list of emergency symptoms, but … well, maybe see your member of the clergy for that one instead.

I’ll add this: When in doubt, call the E.R. I’d always rather see a pet lover make a trip they didn’t need to than not make a trip they did.