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As a responsible pet owner, you want your cat or dog to get the care he needs on both a day-to-day basis and in the event of an emergency. But what exactly constitutes an emergency? Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a pet’s health issue is normal (albeit eyebrow raising) or something that warrants a call to the veterinarian or an urgent trip to the emergency clinic.

When it comes to your pet’s health, of course, you should never hesitate to pick up the phone and speak with your veterinarian. In the meantime, here’s more information about the best ways to keep your pet safe, when you should seek professional care for an emergency, how you can prepare for an emergency in the moment, and when the prescription — strictly for you — is simply to stop worrying.

Learn to Recognize What’s Normal — and What’s Not

Finding the right veterinarian and veterinary clinic is the most important part of your pet’s care. This is especially true if an emergency arises. You’ve probably already built a strong bond with your pet’s health care team, but if you think your tie could be tighter, work to strengthen it. 

First, ensure your pet is up to date on wellness care. If your pet hasn’t seen the doctor for more than a year, set up an appointment with the veterinarian for an examination. Veterinarians usually recommend that senior pets and those with ongoing medical conditions see the doctor every six months or more. Annual or more frequent examinations can help catch problems early and help prevent unexpected health problems.

What’s more, regular wellness exams help you and your veterinarian learn what’s normal for your pet — and what’s not. This is one of the most crucial ways to prepare for an emergency. During your pet’s regular examination, the veterinarian will often alert you to any potential health concerns typical for your cat’s or dog’s breed and tell you what is expected when it comes to your individual pet’s health and behavior. Similarly, you should be able to tell your veterinarian what seems to be normal for your pet. If you notice your pet doing something alarming or unusual, it’s never wrong to call your veterinarian to ask for advice. She will let you know whether to schedule an appointment. If you can’t get in that day, ask whether the veterinarian recommends taking your pet to the nearest emergency facility.

There are times when there’s no doubt your pet needs to see a veterinarian immediately. Examples of possible issues that can merit an emergency appointment include: trauma such as being in an accident, uncontrollable bleeding, prolonged vomiting or diarrhea, extreme or extended lethargy, lack of appetite, difficulty breathing, swelling of the face, seizures, distended abdomen, weakness, difficulty walking, collapse and pale gums. These signs can point to serious illness, so if you notice any of them, rush your pet to the veterinarian or the nearest 24-hour emergency facility. It’s also important to head out for emergency care if you suspect your cat or dog has eaten a foreign object, such as a small toy, or a toxic item, such as a medication that’s made for people.

Health concerns like minor injuries, intermittent sneezing or coughing, intermittent vomiting or diarrhea in a pet that is still eating and drinking, or weight loss over time rarely require emergency care but still should be addressed by a health care professional. So schedule an appointment with your veterinarian for an examination. The doctor will run appropriate diagnostic tests to help diagnose any problem and help get your pet back to optimum health.

Know Where to Take Your Pet in an Emergency

Now that you have a better idea of what warrants a trip to the emergency room, the next step is to learn where to take your pet in an urgent situation. How do you do this? Find out more about your regular veterinary practice — in particular, whether the practice offers after-hours or 24-hour care. If the practice doesn’t offer emergency care, ask which facility your pet’s health care team recommends.

Remember, in the case of an emergency, sometimes the facility that’s closest to you and your pet is the best place to go, since the goal is to get medical care for your ill or injured pet as quickly as possible. Other times, your pet might benefit from waiting a little longer to reach the facility that best fits your values as a pet owner.

Once you’ve worked with your veterinarian to identify emergency pet care facilities, make a note of the clinics’ phone numbers along with driving directions. Keep this information in an easily accessible place, like in your smartphone, on the refrigerator or in the glove box of your car. This ensures that the information is handy if you need to access it quickly.

In the unfortunate event your pet does need immediate care, call the clinic ahead of time or en route to let the staff know you’re on your way. Some facilities are equipped to handle multiple emergencies simultaneously, while others may not be. Depending on the clinic’s capacity and the nature of your pet’s emergency, you may be diverted to another facility. When you arrive at the emergency clinic, keep in mind that just as in the ER of a hospital for people, the most critical patients get treated first. So if your cat or dog isn’t immediately whisked away for treatment, that could be a good sign — it may mean your pet is not the most critical in the hospital. 

Emergencies are scary, and any time something appears wrong with your pet, it’s concerning. But by investing some time in your pet’s wellness care beforehand, you and your pet’s veterinary team can work together to keep your pet in the best possible health.

Accident Prevention

It’s unfortunate, but emergencies happen. Pets get injured, become ill and eat things they shouldn’t. Still, many accidents can be avoided simply by taking some precautions. While the following tips might appear to be common sense, they help prevent some of the most frequent accidents that send pets to veterinary ERs.

Pet-proof your home and outdoor environment. Make sure your pet doesn’t have access to electrical cords, open windows, high balconies or walkways, sharp lawn-edging or jagged rocks, garbage, household toxins, or over-the-counter or prescription medications. When outdoors, take care that your pet is allowed to run loose only in an area that is fenced in and devoid of any holes and potential escape routes. When out for a walk, keep your pet on a leash at all times.

Cook with caution. It’s no surprise that cats and dogs may want to join you in the kitchen or at the table, but take care when cooking or feeding your pet table scraps. Besides the fact that too much people food can add inches to your pet’s waist, abrupt changes in diet can lead to gastrointestinal upset, and fatty or greasy foods may contribute to pancreatitis. Some human foods are also toxic to pets. Specifically, avoid giving your pet chocolate and onions, because they can be dangerous and even deadly in certain amounts. Grapes, raisins and macadamia nuts should also be avoided in dogs.

Be seasonally smart. When the weather is warm, make sure you provide your pet with shade and plenty of fresh water to avoid heat exhaustion and any associated illnesses. In the winter months, make sure your cats and dogs have access to a water supply that won’t freeze and a shelter that’s warm and dry to prevent ­hypothermia and frostbite.

Fido’s First-Aid Kit

You’ve probably created a people-focused first-aid kit, but do you have one for your pet? It’s worthwhile to prepare a first-aid kit specifically for your furry friends — before you need it, of course. Below is a list of what should be inside it. However, if an emergency occurs, you should always call your veterinarian first, if possible, to ask for guidance in helping your pet.
  • Clean towels
  • Rectal thermometer
  • Saline irrigation solution (like you would use for contact lenses)
  • Gauze and cotton bandaging material
  • White medical adhesive tape
  • A muzzle appropriate for your pet’s mouth
  • Antibiotic ointment (like Neosporin)
  • Hydrogen peroxide
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