Understanding and diagnosing an animal is complicated. Veterinarians and veterinary technicians cannot ask the patient what it is feeling, or where it hurts. In that way providing veterinary care can be very similar to providing pediatric care to babies, if babies got into the types of scraps a dog or cat can get into while your back is turned. It helps our medical team to understand what led up to the event that caused the symptoms you are seeing.
Below we describe a number of common symptoms that lead to emergency visits. In order to understand the cause of the symptoms our medical team conducts diagnostic and exploratory tests and examinations. We try to start with the least invasive or the most informative test, and work our way out from there. Depending on the nature of the emergency, different diagnostic tests will be ordered, they may range from a blood test, to x-rays, to an ultrasound, video scoping, a CT-scan or MRI. Our goal is always to alleviate pain and suffering and treat the cause or the symptoms as quickly as possible. Some conditions are straightforward, some are more complicated.
If you are coming into the emergency room, ensure your pet has a leash and collar (or harness), or is safely secured in a pet carrier. If your pet has eaten something, please bring the wrapper or any leftovers with you to the ER.
These symptoms may indicate a number of different conditions. Diagnostic tests and exploratory examinations will be conducted in order to understand the probable cause and provide appropriate treatment.
Abdominal Pain: Abdominal pain can be secondary to many different causes including, but not limited to, vomiting, diarrhea, infectious disease (parasites, viral and bacteria), eating foreign objects which can obstruct the gastrointestinal tract, and cancer. Animals with abdominal pain may be reluctant to participate in regular daily activities, walk with a hunched posture, or tremor or wince when the abdomen is touched. Abdominal pain is always a good reason for emergency evaluation.
Allergic Reactions: Allergic reactions can have many different causes. Some more common causes include insect bites and stings, inhaled allergens, foods, medications, substances that have come in contact with the skin, vaccines and chemicals. Allergic reactions can manifest as facial swelling, hives, vomiting and diarrhea, and respiratory difficulties. Allergic responses can also progress to anaphylactic reactions which are life threatening. If you feel your pet is having an allergic reaction, immediate assessment by a veterinarian is recommended.
Cardiac Emergencies: Cardiac emergencies can be vague in their presentation but more common signs include weakness or sudden collapse, coughing, bluish gums or tongue, and shortness of breath. Some of these situations can be life threatening; immediate evaluation is warranted.
Respiratory Changes: Breathing is obviously a vital function of the body. Difficulty breathing can be associated with many different conditions including asthma, heart disease, infections and pneumonia, as well as cancer. If your pet is breathing with more effort or more rapidly than usual, please call for advice or have your pet evaluated by a veterinarian immediately.
Seizures: Seizures stem from abnormal brain activity. Seizures can be associated with toxins, metabolic disorders such as liver disease or low blood sugar, high blood pressure, strokes and aneurysms, cancer as well as conditions our pets can be born with, such as epilepsy. Small seizures can be seen as abnormal behaviors while large seizures can be debilitating causing loss of consciousness, balance and result in thrashing. Seizures can be extremely dangerous, even life threatening. If your pet experiences a seizure, or if you are concerned for your pet, please have your pet evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible.
Toxicities: Toxins are everywhere in the environment. Common toxins are household plants (such as lilies and certain palm trees), mushrooms, vehicle fluids, chemicals, medications, some foods and common poisons. Please follow this link for a more comprehensive list of common toxins. Toxicities are treated with decontamination (induction of vomiting – this needs to be done as soon as possible after ingestion, followed by administration of counteracting medications and activated charcoal to continue to bind any remaining toxin in the intestinal tract). Treatment for toxicities should be tailored to the specific toxin. If your pet has been exposed to a substance you feel may be toxic, please bring the packaging associated with the substance for identification to allow quick and effective treatment. A great resource is the Pet Poison Helpline.
Urinary Changes: Abnormal urination can be characterized by an inability to urinate, painful urination or urinating more frequently. Causes of abnormal urination can arise from infection, stones and crystals, inflammation, cancer and rarely foreign bodies (such as plant material or foxtails). Changes in urination behaviors can be a sign of underlying disease such as diabetes, kidney, liver or adrenal disease. Changes in urination can progress to life threatening situations. If concerned about your pet’s urinary behaviors, please call for advice or seek veterinary care as soon as possible.
Vomiting and/or Diarrhea: Vomiting and diarrhea are very common reasons for dogs and cats to visit the emergency room and their causes are often varied with age and vaccination status. Young dogs can develop vomiting and/or diarrhea from eating objects or foods that they shouldn’t or as a result of various infections (parasite, viral or bacterial). While older dogs can be affected by the same diseases as younger dogs, vomiting and diarrhea can also be a sign of other conditions such as inflammatory bowel diseases, cancer or organ failure. While vomiting and diarrhea may seem fairly harmless, it is both uncomfortable and can lead to dangerous levels of dehydration if left untreated.
Time Sensitive Emergencies
These types of emergencies tend to be a little more clear-cut, but all can be time sensitive and life-threatening. Seek emergency veterinary care.
Heatstroke: Heat induced injury (overheating or heatstroke, not burns) is common in the summer months. Common causes can include leaving your pet in a car or yard without appropriate cooling, or even exercise during the warmer hours of the day – Don’t leave your pet unattended in a car even with the windows down, and always ensure there is easy access to water and shade on warm days. Patients with heat exhaustion can show signs of muscle cramping, weakness, tremors and seizures, vomiting or diarrhea and difficulty breathing. As the body’s temperature rises, these signs will worsen and may become fatal. If you are concerned your pet has been overheated, seek immediate veterinary help. Cooling measures, include wetting your animal down with cool (not ice cold) water, a wet towel, and applying a fan, can be instituted to help slow or minimize the effects of heat induced injury while en route to a veterinarian.
Labor & Delivery: While delivery of new puppies and kittens sounds wonderful, complications can arise during labor and birth. Once active labor (visible abdominal contraction) begins, a puppy or kitten should be produced approximately every 30 minutes. If active pushing is not successful at producing a newborn within 1-2 hours, this is considered an abnormal delivery (dystocia) and veterinary evaluation should be sought. On occasion simple repositioning of the newborn can be successful in resolving the complication, but sometimes surgery (a cesarean section) is needed to remove the newborns. Prolonged dystocia can be fatal to the mother and newborns. Seek veterinary care or call for advice if you have concerns regarding your pregnant animal.
Eye Emergencies: The eye is a very sensitive organ with the unique function of providing vision. Common symptoms that may indicate an issue with your pet’s eyes include redness, discharge or squinting (indicating pain). This may be caused by trauma, foreign material in the eye, cataracts, glaucoma, immune mediated diseases and infections. Due to the eye’s important job of providing sight, it is very important to seek immediate evaluation and treatment for eye problems.
Bite Wounds: Animal bites and wounds are common occurrences as our pets interact with their world at home and beyond. Depending on the extent of trauma, location of the injury (involvement of blood vessels and internal organs) and the degree of contamination of the wound, prognosis can vary. It is important to keep in mind that small puncture wounds, which often seem minor, can hide much more extensive damage to underlying tissues. If addressed in a timely and aggressive fashion, pets will almost invariably recover well. When treating bite wounds, consideration must also be given to a pet’s vaccine status as some infectious diseases including rabies and FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus) can be transmitted via bites. If a bite or attack has occurred, please seek evaluation as soon as possible.
Snake Bites: Snake bite envenomation is a very serious condition. Snake venom has many different components that can affect the body in several ways. Most commonly, pets will have profound swelling and pain at the site of the bite. Later effects can involve bleeding tendencies, death of tissues affected by the bite, vomiting, diarrhea, and heart and brain abnormalities. In severe cases snake bites can be fatal. If your pet has been bitten by a snake, do not try to extract the poison. The only truly effective treatment for a snake bite is administration of antivenin- an antidote that neutralizes the venom preventing injury to the body.
Trauma (Hard Fall, Hit by Car): Traumatic injuries are often caused by falls, bite wounds, lacerations and being struck by a car. In many patients the degree of trauma is not readily apparent and the severity of injury can progress rapidly or over time (internal bleeding, lung puncture, severe trauma or bruising under the skin, or infection). Medical evaluation is vitally important in determining the extent of trauma and starting a treatment plan to prevent or minimize complications following the injury. Because the true extent of injury may be unclear, it is important to use extreme caution when approaching or handling an injured animal and to seek veterinary attention as soon as possible.