Pet emergencies

Just like people pets on occasion require emergency medical attention. The first thing to remember in an emergency situation is not to panic, pick up the phone and call your veterinarian. They will need you to describe the issue, so stay close by your pet so you can answer any questions the doctors have. Your vet may tell you to how to give first aid and how to safely transport your pet. Calling ahead to the clinic also gives the veterinary staff time to prepare for your arrival.

Different clinics report they see different emergency issues more commonly; this may be owing to geographic location or the type of animal they predominantly see. (It should be noted that the following article is not written in order of prevalence).


Trauma cases commonly include road traffic accidents and dog bites. It can be hard to assess the severity of injury so your pet should see the vet as soon as possible, even if there is little external damage. If there is internal bleeding after an RTA, it can take some time to show signs. Dog bites often produce crush injury but can show little skin damage and more extensive injury can be easily hidden by fur. Wounds can be deeper than they appear, and infection can develop if veterinary treatment is delayed.

Most traumatic injuries are painful, so your pet will also benefit from painkillers from your vet. Do not be tempted to give them something from your own stash of human painkillers- these can be very harmful to pets.

Poisoning and dietary indiscretion

Pets are curious about their environment and sometimes this can get them into trouble. If you are concerned your dog or cat has eaten something they should not have, call your vet immediately. The most common poisonings seen are chocolate, grapes or raisins, human medications, lilies, rat poisons and slug poisons. Some of these can be successfully treated if seen immediately, but can become fatal once your pet starts to digest and absorb the poison.

Vomiting and/or diarrhoea

These are common problems in dogs, with the majority of cases being simple stomach upsets that will resolve in 24 hours untreated. However, if it persists beyond 24 hours, if there is blood in the vomit or stool, or your dog is lethargic, weak or in pain, then call your vet immediately. If your dog has a chronic medical problem such as diabetes and starts vomiting you should seek veterinary attention as soon as possible, do not wait 24 hours.

Sometimes vomiting and diarrhoea is also seen in cats. If your cat vomits more than once, cannot keep water down, you see blood or unusual material in the vomit or diarrhoea, call your vet immediately.

Urination issues

Serious urination issues occur more commonly in cats than dogs. If you notice your pet is not producing any urine, urinating a lot, straining to urinate, or has blood in their urine, go to see your vet as soon as possible. If a pet is straining and unable to pass any urine, it is a very serious emergency that needs to be addressed by a veterinarian immediately; this is more common in males than females. Many pets will strain to urinate if they have crystals or stones in their bladder. Inflammation, infection, blood clots, cancer or stress can all cause difficulty urinating. 

Breathing difficulties

These include wheezing, choking, weak and raspy breathing, shallow breathing or coughing. In cats, open-mouth breathing is also a concern. Breathing difficulties can result from foreign bodies in the throat, allergic reactions, asthma, heart disease or lung disease.

Increased respiratory effort (laboured breathing) typically occurs when the lungs or airway is compromised. This can occur due to trauma, allergic reactions, heart failure, toxins, infectious agents, cancer, or leakage of air. Any difficulty breathing should be considered a serious problem, requiring immediate evaluation by a veterinarian. Often radiographs are necessary to evaluate the lungs and airways.

Bloat or gastric dilatation volvulus (GDV)

GDV in dogs is where the stomach becomes twisted and is life threatening emergency. It tends to occur in large breed dogs with deep chests, such as Great Danes and GSDs. The early signs may be restlessness after a large meal and retching, usually just producing white froth. As the stomach bloats, the dog will show signs of pain and will continue to try and be sick. They may drool excessively, and you may notice an increase in breathing rate and heart rate.

If you suspect your dog has a GDV it is imperative you seek immediate veterinary treatment. Success rates for surgery decrease dramatically with delayed treatment.

Whelping and kittening issues

There are a variety of situations with a birthing queen or bitch which may require veterinary assistance, the exact nature of these is beyond the scope of this article.


Eclampsia (milk fever or hypocalcaemia) is a condition that most commonly affects nursing mothers but can also occur during late pregnancy. When blood calcium levels drop too low, it produces signs that are initially vague- restlessness, panting, increased salivation and stiffness when moving. This can progress quickly to muscle twitching, fever and death, so contact your vet immediately if you notice any of these signs.


Collapse is a loss of strength causing your pet to fall and/ or be unable to rise. Collapse has a huge number of possible causes, including heart or lung disease, excessive bleeding, anaemia, neurological disease, musculoskeletal disease, toxicity and some drugs and medications. If your pet suffers any form of collapse seek immediate veterinary attention.


Seizures are episodes of abnormal electrical activity within the brain. They can be triggered by problems within the head (such as epilepsy, brain tumours or brain swelling) or problems external to the head (low blood sugar and electrolyte disturbances). Characterised by uncontrollable shaking and tremors, loss of consciousness, paddling the legs and possible loss of bowel or urinary control. The most common cause of seizures in dogs and cats is epilepsy. If your pet is diagnosed as epileptic not every seizure will constitute an emergency. However, in other cases seek veterinary advice as soon as possible.

Neurological (nerve or brain) problems

Neurological problems can show as disorientation, incoordination, walking in circles, severe lethargy, unresponsiveness and coma. Vestibular syndrome is commonly seen in older dogs and is often incorrectly referred to as a ‘stroke’. The characteristic signs are loss of balance, leaning to one side, head tilt and rapid left-to-right eye movements (nystagmus). Sometimes the loss of balance is so severe that the dog rolls over repeatedly. Neurological problems are serious and need prompt veterinary attention to achieve the most favourable outcome.

Eye conditions

Eye problems can deteriorate quickly and if left untreated can result in blindness or loss of the eye. Signs of eye disease include redness, discharge, excessive tearing, squinting or a closed eye and constant pawing at the eye. A foreign body in the eye or a superficial scratch on the cornea requires prompt veterinary treatment to prevent a minor problem from becoming a serious one.

Stings and allergic reactions

Stings occur more often on the face, with signs like those seen in humans- itchy red swellings or hives. Rarely, severe allergic reactions can lead to breathing difficulty due to swelling of the airways. If your pet is showing signs of discomfort or distress, contact your vet.

Emergencies can arise when you least expect them; always be prepared and have your vet’s emergency contact details saved in your phone and ensure your pet’s other carers do also. It is always best to seek veterinary advice early, most conditions are more easily and successfully treated with prompt intervention.

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Written on February 15, 2022

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