Determining when to bring your pet to the emergency vet can be a stressful and not–always–straightforward decision. In the past, we’ve shared a list of signs that warrant an immediate trip to the pet ER, but we understand not all signs are as obviously critical as a bleeding wound. That’s why today, we‘re featuring five seemingly-less-serious signs that may cause many pet parents to question if their pet is experiencing a true emergency. It’s very important for pet owners to know exactly what to look for, as these symptoms can, under specific circumstances, signal a condition that may be fatal without immediate veterinary care. So, without further ado, here are the five signs of a pet medical emergency:
Dogs and cats vomit for several reasons. In fact, it’s a common veterinary joke that cats vomit for sport! A single episode of vomiting typically doesn’t require a trip to the animal ER. However, your pet should be seen if he or she has any of these abnormal vomiting signs:
- Blood in the vomit
- Vomit looks like coffee grounds
- Vomiting is ongoing for 12-24 hours
- If you know your pet ate something they shouldn’t have (such as a string, a toy, or something toxic).
Finding foreign material before it becomes obstructive or diagnosing diseases such as endocrine or metabolic disease can be lifesaving if done sooner rather than later.
2. Swollen Abdomen
Is your dog’s belly getting rounder, tense, and uncomfortable at an alarming rate? A swollen belly could be a sign of fluid build-up from cancer, heart disease, or severe inflammation or infection in the abdomen. It may also mean air build-up in your pet’s stomach and intestines which is life-threatening. If these organs then twist on themselves, your dog may even require emergency surgery.
A urinary obstruction in cats, especially males, can sometimes cause the abdomen to appear slightly larger than normal. Urinary obstructions can become life-threatening very rapidly. If your male cat suddenly has a big belly or is vocalizing or straining while urinating, an ER visit is necessary.
3. Gum Color
Normal gum (mucous membrane) color in dogs and cats is typically a bubble gum pink. If your pet’s gums are a barely-there pale pink, white, purple, blue, or gray, emergent evaluation is needed. Abnormally colored gums signal poor circulation, which can be caused by low red blood cells (anemia), poor blood pressure, or abnormal oxygenation.
Note: Some pets may have pigmented mucous membranes – meaning their skin/gums are naturally black or gray. In this case, gum color may be a less reliable indication of health. If you have questions, call your family veterinarian or local animal emergency hospital to discuss your concerns.
Collapse episodes or loss of consciousness may be caused by several issues; seizures, sudden changes in heart rhythm or abnormal bloodflow through the heart, or even anemia (low red blood cells) may cause collapse. Your pet should be seen if they:
- Lose consciousness (even for just a few seconds)
- Are unresponsive
- Behave abnormally
- Don’t seem aware of their environment
5. Difficulty Breathing
Your pet is experiencing respiratory distress if they:
- Cannot catch their breath
- Are heaving or wheezing
- Are sitting upright with head and neck extended – called orthopneic breathing and is meant to enhance airflow
- Are a cat and open-mouthed breathing
Respiratory distress in pets can be due to many reasons, but it’s often related to diseases of the nasal cavity, trachea, lungs, and/or heart. If your pet can’t breathe, he or she is in a life-threatening situation and should be brought to the animal emergency hospital right away.
Unsure if your pet’s breathing is off? Count respirations!
- When sitting calmly or resting, dogs should take between 12-40 breaths per minute. If your dog’s respiratory rate exceeds 60 breaths per minute – seek immediate care.
- Count your cat’s respirations for 15 seconds while he or she is resting. Multiply the result by four. If the product is greater than 40, go to the ER vet!
- Shallow, rapid breathing or very deep, slow breathing are both abnormal and indicate that your cat should be seen immediately.
We hope you now feel more confident in assessing these emergency signs in your pet as you determine if your pet needs to go to the animal emergency hospital. When in doubt, it’s always best to call your family veterinarian or local animal emergency hospital to get an opinion on whether you should bring your pet in or continue to monitor the issue at home.
For more information on pet signs to be aware of, check out the following blogs:
- When to Bring Your Pet to the ER Vet
- 7 Reasons to Immediately Bring Your Cat to the ER
- 5 Reasons to Immediately Bring Your Dog to the ER
- How Can I Tell When My Exotic Pet is Sick?
Written by Sarah Foote, DVM.