No one ever wants for an emergency to happen with their pet- and despite our best efforts to maintain the health of our companion animals, unexpected things can happen. In the event of a true medical emergency, time of often of the essence, and has a significant impact on outcome. Being prepared for an emergency, as well as knowing how to recognize the signs of common ones, could potentially save your pet's life, and in some cases, reduce the cost of care needed for their recovery.
This article is intended for educational purposes only and is not exhaustive. Information online, including this article, is not intended as medical advice or a substitute for either it or consultation and physical exam with a licensed professional. If you ever have concerns about your pet's health or suspect there may be an emergency occurring, call your veterinarian or, if after hours, your closest ER, who may be able to advise you further and recommend a visit. When in doubt, it's safer to go in just in case than to wait. If you call an ER and they advise a long wait time, remember that patients are triaged on intake and your pet will be seen sooner and stabilized if necessary, even if you are waiting for an extended period to speak with a doctor or move forward with less-urgent needs.
Preparation for an Emergency
If you have a pet, you need to be prepared in advance for a possible emergency. The following may save you valuable time if you ever find yourself needing emergency veterinary services:
1. Identify any after-hours urgent or emergency care facilities local to you. In some regions, this may mean the single closest veterinary clinic offering after-hours services. In other regions, there may be multiple dedicated ER facilities within several miles of your residence.
2. Familiarize yourself with where the ER is. If possible, drive there at least once. During an emergency, it may be difficult to think straight. It may also be dark out, if after-hours. Driving to the clinic in advance to have an idea of where it is may be very helpful for you in the event of an actual emergency.
3. Know the number for the ER. Have it saved in a safe and accessible place in the house, and also in your cell phone contacts.
4. Save the number for Pet Poison Control. The number for ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center is (888) 426-4435. The number for the Pet Poison Helpline is 800-213-6680. These services may include a fee at the time of calling, so be prepared with a credit card if needed.
5. Have a plan for safely transporting your pet. This may mean a carrier for cats or other small animals, and a crate or a restrained space in the car for your dog to otherwise travel.
Major Signs of an Emergency
Providing a complete list of emergencies would be impossible, particularly as different pets present in different ways, and evaluation can be subjective, particularly to untrained eyes. Again, this information is intended for educational purposes only and any questions or concerns should always be directed to your pet's veterinarian or an emergency service local to you. Even if your pet's symptoms are not on this list, you should call when you have concerns.
In general, the following signs or circumstances are almost always indicative of a time-sensitive emergency, and your pet should be evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible:
- Respiratory distress (labored breathing, open-mouth breathing, rapid breathing, straining to breathe such as craning the neck, gasping, or blue, grey, or muddy coloration of the gums)
- Sudden and unrelenting vomiting, or non-productive retching
- Profuse, bright red diarrhea
- Difficulty urinating
- Lethargy or unwillingness to move, especially when accompanied by pale or white gums
- Pale or white gums
- Abnormally distended abdomen
- Collapse or sudden loss of limb function (all limbs or some/one)
- New or unrelenting seizures
- Ingestion of a known toxin or medication overdose
- Trauma, especially blunt forces (hit by car) or injuries with deep wounds or severe bleeding
- Animal bites
- Eye injuries or sudden changes to the eye
- Sudden unexplained pain or distress (including abnormal vocalizations)
- Opening of any abdominal incision
- Unexplained or non-stop bleeding
- Abnormal bruising or clusters of red pinprick discoloration of the skin
As above, these examples are not exhaustive, do not always present in the way described, may have some but not all signs, and can happen to more than just the 'at risk' breeds and species identified. Please direct any questions or concerns about your personal pet to a veterinarian either in-person or by phone. Most emergency clinics accept calls. This list is for educational purposes only.
The ASPCA has made a list of the Top Ten Pet Toxins.
Not all toxins are listed, but these are common ones! If your pet ingests something toxic, you should seek veterinary advice before attempting to induce vomiting. Vomiting is sometimes contraindicated for certain substances and toxins, and there are hazards associated with the limited means available for inducing vomiting at home. The safest way to manage toxin ingestion is to seek immediate in-person veterinary care when possible. If you call a pet poison service, they can open a case for a fee and consult with your veterinarian on anticipated complications and treatment recommendations. The number for ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center is (888) 426-4435. The number for the Pet Poison Helpline is 800-213-6680. These services may include a fee at the time of calling, so be prepared with a credit card if needed.
Avoid toxin exposures by being aware of your pet's environment and minimizing access to potential hazards. This includes keeping all medications (OTC, Prescription, and Pet Meds) in a secure location, and storing pet medications separately from human medications to avoid a mix-up. Medications should never be administered to a pet without veterinary instruction- many Over-the-Counter human medications are toxic to dogs and cats. Food and trash should be kept out of reach as much as possible, even if that means keeping the trash can in a separate room like the garage. Caution should always be exercised when giving table scraps or "human foods" to pets, to avoid exposure to common toxins like grapes, raisins, onions, garlic, and chocolate. Never leave a pet unsupervised in a room where housework like cleaning or remodeling is being done, to avoid exposure to caustic substances such as bleach products, mop water, or paint and household glues.
The Bottom Line
The best way to manage an emergency is avoiding it altogether. However, this isn't always possible! And many pet emergencies are out of our control. Being prepared and recognizing an emergency early could save your pet's life.
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