How to Recognize an Emergency

The following information is meant to help you identify a life-threatening emergency or very serious condition that requires immediate veterinary medical and/or surgical intervention. Examples are given, but this is not an exhaustive list of every condition possible in any given situation.

If you have any doubt that the signs your pet is displaying are serious or not, do not hesitate to call us at
(404) 907-1404 or contact the local emergency hospital after hours.

We can gather some important information over the phone to help figure out if your pet should be seen right away, or if monitoring at home is appropriate. However, since it is often important to see, hear, and touch an animal to determine what exactly is going on, we recommend bringing modafinil your pet in for an exam if you are worried and not sure how serious the signs your pet is displaying may be.

Anaphylaxis (Serious Allergic Reaction)

Anaphylaxis refers to a life-threatening allergic reaction. Signs can include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Itchiness
  • Hives
  • Facial swelling

These signs can occur after:

  • Vaccinations
  • Other medications given by injection
  • Bee or insect stings
  • Ingestion or inhalation of something an animal is allergic to

You should seek treatment right away as signs can progress to:

  • Weakness and lethargy
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pale gums
  • Collapse
  • Seizures
  • Coma and death

Collapse

If your pet collapses all of a sudden, this could be a sign of a very serious condition. For example, collapse can be seen with:

  • Prolonged blood loss from internal bleeding (usually associated with the spleen, and there is usually profound weakness as well)
  • Neurologic problems (in this case falling, rolling, or trouble with balance)
  • Heart problem (fainting episodes)

Your pet should be seen right away to determine the cause and initiate prompt treatment.

Bite Wounds & Attacks

Bite wounds should be treated as soon as possible due to the risk for infection and abscess formation.

In cats, it is common that you will not see the bite wound.  Bite wounds are usually located on the rump or tail or the head/neck/side, depending on whether the cat was trying to run away or wanting to fight.

You may notice that your cat: 

  • Looks lethargic
  • Is hiding
  • Refuses to eat.

You may feel a lump where an abscess (collection of pus underneath the skin) has formed. Sometimes the abscess opens up and drains, and you will see and feel wet fur in this area.

Abscesses do require prompt attention, but often times can wait until clinic hours in the morning to be treated.

Most of the time, abscesses heal well with appropriate treatment to drain the pus and fight infection.

Complications from serious bite wounds, like devitalized/dying skin that turns dark purple or black, can occur days after appropriate treatment was started and require aggressive treatment.

Trouble Breathing

If your pet is having trouble breathing, he or she should be taken to TFAC or the emergency hospital immediately. There could be a problem with:

  • Upper airway (severe upper respiratory infection, laryngeal paralysis, collapsing trachea)
  • Lower airways (asthma, bronchitis)
  • Lungs (pneumonia)
  • Chest cavity (air or fluid inside the chest cavity making it hard for the lungs to fill with air)
  • Congestive heart failure in which fluid has accumulated in either the lungs, the chest cavity, or both due to the heart not pumping effectively – all of which making breathing labored

Intervention is needed quickly, and oxygen will be provided while basic diagnostics like a physical exam (to listen to the heart and lungs) and chest radiographs (to image the heart, lungs, and upper airways) help determine a diagnosis and the needed treatment plan.

Toxins

The basics tenets of treatment for a pet following ingestion of a poisonous substance are:

  • Induce vomiting to eliminate as much of the substance as possible. This is only useful in cases of early detection with non-caustic agents which would not injure the esophagus lining during vomiting.
  • Reduce further absorption from the stomach by administering activated charcoal to bind up the poison
  • Aggressive intravenous fluid therapy to flush the poison out of the bloodstream

ASPCA Poison Control

This website contains a wealth of information on how to respond to an emergency, to prepare for emergencies and make a first aid kit, and to find out if certain plants and foods are toxic to pets.

1-888-426-4435

This number connects you directly with a veterinarian who specializes in toxicology 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If you a concerned that your pet may have ingested a poisonous substance, call this number. There may be a $65 consultation fee charged to your credit card, depending on the situation. If emergency care is required, you can give your pet's case number to the veterinarian treating your pet, and he or she will be able to consult with the toxicologist regarding your pet's treatment.

Trauma

If there is known or suspected trauma, seek immediate veterinary care.

In addition to detecting possible fractures and soft tissue injuries, it is important to assess internal organs for damage (like lung contusions or internal bleeding) and make sure your pet is not in a shock state (very low blood pressure, leading to poor blood flow and perfusion of organs).

Limping

Limping can be caused by:

  • Soft tissue strains or sprains
  • Fractures
  • Hip or elbow dysplasia
  • Cruciate ligament tears
  • Tick-borne disease

A physical exam and radiographs of the limb(s) are usual preliminary diagnostics, and bloodwork may be required to rule out a tick-borne disease if there is accompanying fever, lethargy, and anorexia.

Other diagnostics may be recommended depending on what disease or conditions are suspected based on your pet's breed and age, history, and physical exam.

If your pet is extremely painful, not bearing any weight on the limb, and/or the limb appears to be dangling, then immediate attention is recommended. If your pet is otherwise acting like himself or herself, then it should be ok to seek evaluation during clinic hours.

Trouble Walking/ Dragging Hind Legs

In dogs, we are most worried about intervertebral disc disease. This condition results from herniated disc material causing compression on the spinal cord.

If this is mild, it results in pain and inflammation, and rest and anti-inflammatory support can be used to manage these symptoms. If the compression is more severe, you will see a funny walk, like your dog is drunk (swaying, scraping toe nails, and almost falling over).

This condition requires prompt treatment as well. In cases of severe compression, the dog can become paralyzed (no voluntary control of the hind limbs, dragging hindlimbs behind himself).

Prompt veterinary examination is critical to determine the best course of treatment and expected prognosis for walking normally again. Overall prognosis is tied to whether the dog can still feel his feet, and if not, how soon surgery is performed to remove the compression.

In cats, dragging the hind limbs and crying out in pain/distress is usually due to a blood clot that has lodged at the end of the aorta. This clot lodging here cuts off blood flow to the hind limbs.

Underlying heart disease leading to clot formation is very common. These cats are usually very stressed and uncomfortable and require veterinary attention right away.

Prognosis for recovery of the use of the back legs is guarded. Also, if heart disease is present, we need to determine the severity of heart disease quickly to determine treatment options and overall prognosis.

Seizures

Signs that your pet is having a seizure include:

  • Loss of consciousness (not aware of surroundings)
  • Paddling the limbs
  • Drooling
  • Urinating or defecating involuntarily

You should seek immediate veterinary attention if your pet is having a seizure.

Some seizures do not cease after a short time and require medication to stop them. This is important to know because prolonged seizure activity can lead to a severely high body temperature, which can cause damage to the body's organs.

If the seizure does end after a minute or so, it is still a good idea to have your pet checked out for possible metabolic issues, like low blood sugar or calcium. Blood tests will also help determine if liver disease is a possibility, and evidence of certain toxins like antifreeze can show up on blood and urine tests.

If metabolic issues are ruled out, the emergency clinic may continue to observe your pet overnight and transfer him or her to TFAC in the morning to continue the diagnostic work-up.

This diagnostic work-up includes tests to rule out infectious and inflammatory disease of the brain. If these results are negative, then referral to a neurologist for imaging (CT or MRI) of the brain is required to make a definitive diagnosis (i.e. tumor, blood vessel problem, epilepsy, etc).

We will discuss all the options for care with you in detail before any diagnostics or treatment are recommended.

Profound Weakness

You may see collapse as well. If the abdomen appears enlarged and the gums look pale, we are very worried about internal bleeding.

Your pet needs immediate care to determine if there is internal bleeding, and if so, determine the cause and help guide our treatment.

Bloat

Bloating in dogs is a very serious condition. Common signs of bloat you will see at home are:

  • Repeated attempts to vomit (which usually produce nothing or only foam)
  • Restlessness (pacing, panting, and whining)
  • Hunched up posture
  • Repeated attempts to stretch with obvious discomfort
  • Gagging, drooling, and licking the air
  • Belly may feel tight when you touch your dog

This condition requires immediate medical and surgical intervention if the stomach is twisted as well. Radiographs of the stomach help determine if the stomach is twisted.

Trouble Urinating or Bloody Urine

This problem is most common in male cats and requires immediate evaluation by a veterinarian to determine if your cat is obstructed (not able to pass urine).

Signs of trouble passing urine are:

  • Straining in the litter box or out of the litter box around the house
  • Trying to urinate frequently
  • Passing only a few drops of urine
  • Vocalizing while trying to urinate
  • Excessive licking of the urogenital area.

Sometimes these signs can appear like constipation.

If your cat is obstructed, he will need to be admitted to the hospital for prompt treatment and diagnostics (blood and urine tests and radiographs of the bladder to rule out stones in the urinary tract). Urinary obstruction can lead to kidney damage and can be fatal within 24-48 hours.

Treatment includes passing a urinary catheter to empty the bladder, and your cat should stay in the hospital to receive IV fluids and other medications for 2-3 days depending on the severity of the condition. We will discuss dietary changes if crystals in the bladder have led to the obstruction, as we want to do everything we can to prevent future episodes, which can occur at any time.

Other times, painful urination, bloody urine, or frequent attempts to urinate can be due to inflammation with or without infection in the bladder (no obstruction present).

Since these signs look just like the signs associated with urinary obstruction, your cat should be evaluated right away to determine if there is a blockage or not. Appropriate treatment will depend on blood and urine testing and radiographs of the bladder as before.

This can also be a recurrent (chronic) condition, so we will discuss management of acute episodes and keys to minimizing or preventing these episodes.  The Indoor Pet Initiative website outlines common life stressors for cats.

In dogs, frequent attempts to urinate, bloody urine, and painful urination can be signs of:

  • Urinary tract infection
  • Stones in the bladder or the urethra
  • Inflammation of the urethra
  • Bladder tumor
  • Neurologic problem

A veterinarian will determine if there is an obstruction to urine flow and start medical (and surgical treatment if needed), depending on the underlying cause.

Vomiting and/or Diarrhea

Please seek prompt attention if vomiting and/or diarrhea have:

  • Persisted the entire day, and is clearly getting worse
  • The vomit/diarrhea is bloody
  • Vomiting/diarrhea is protracted (meaning there are several episodes of vomiting/diarrhea in a row with your pet appearing weak, lethargic, and painful)

There are many reasons for vomiting and diarrhea. If vomiting/diarrhea is very severe, we want to promptly rule out:

  • A foreign body (which would require surgery in most cases)
  • Viral diseases like parvo and panleukopenia in young puppies and kittens
  • Pancreatitis
  • Kidney and liver issues
  • Certain endocrine diseases like Addison's disease 

Eye Injuries

The cornea (outer part of the eye) is a very delicate tissue. Scratches or penetrating injuries require prompt treatment.

Signs of injury and pain can include:

  • Squinting
  • Pawing at the eye
  • Excessive tearing
  • Redness and/or cloudiness of the eye
  • Change in the size of the pupil

If a scratch is strongly suspected, or it is clear that there was a penetrating injury to the eye, then seek evaluation immediately.

If signs are present but mild, and your pet is acting like himself or herself, then waiting for evaluation until the clinic opens should be ok. We will determine if an ulcer on the cornea is present using a special stain. Sometimes, the conjunctiva (pink tissue under the eyelids) is inflammed without any injury to the cornea.

Glaucoma and uveitis can also lead to:

  • Signs of eye pain
  • Changes in the size of the pupil
  • Redness of the eye (blood-shot appearance)
  • Cloudiness of the eye

These conditions should be ruled in or out as soon as possible.

Neck/ Back Pain

There are several reasons for neck and/or back pain. If your pet's gait (walk) is abnormal (very off balance, looks like he or she is drunk), or if he or she is not able to walk, then seek emergency care right away.

This can indicate severe compression on the spinal cord, and may require surgery in a prompt manner for the best chance of recovery.

If your pet is walking fairly normal, but is in extreme pain, then also seek attention right away.