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What Is a Veterinary Emergency?

Alex loves animals and is an experienced licensed veterinary technician with a BS in Biology and an AS in Veterinary Technology.

Understanding what is a true emergency will help you determine when to seek immediate care for your pet.

Understanding what is a true emergency will help you determine when to seek immediate care for your pet.

There are some differences in veterinary medicine that make it unique from human medicine. For example, my patients can't talk. Now, I and anyone that is licensed or who has spent a lengthy amount in clinical practice has the advantage of being able to understand what our patients can't tell us verbally.

A child can tell you that their head hurts, or that they shoved a small toy up their nose. Our pets can't do that, and sadly many pet owners are unable to tell when their pet is in pain.

I can't tell you how many people insist that their limping dog isn't in pain because they are still wagging their tail. Think about it. When was the last time you refused to put weight on your leg or use your arm for fun? I bet, outside of trying to skip high school gym class, it's never.

If you have read any of my other articles on pet care, you know that I feel very strongly about client empowerment and believe very strongly in education. I feel that pet owners can take an active role in their pet's health and well-being. To keep this article quick and to the point, I will break things down into common emergencies and some common things people often think are emergencies. I will cover emergency first aid in another article as I feel that is something every pet owner should know.


Anytime you are concerned about your pet's breathing it should be considered an emergency. There is only one exception, which I will cover because it can confuse some people. If you call a hospital and tell them your pet is having difficulty breathing and they tell you to go directly to the ER, it isn't because they are being mean and want you to spend a fortune. It isn't because they are lazy. It is because if it is a true emergency and your pet really needs medical intervention to breathe they may not be equipped or staffed to handle the situation. It really is in your pet's best interest to go to the ER where they will have staff that is experienced in respiratory emergencies, will have the proper equipment, and will have access to a wider array of emergency drugs.

So, what qualifies as difficulty breathing?

  • Suspected airway obstructions
  • Choking
  • Not breathing
  • Struggling to breathe
  • Panting or open-mouth breathing in a cat
  • Dogs that are panting without having exercised or if it is not hot.
  • If the pet is turning blue.
  • Agonal breathing, which is when the pet is using their abdomen to breathe. (This is NEVER a good sign, and you need immediate medical intervention to attempt to save their life.)

Any one of the above situations can result in your pet requiring oxygen supplementation and a wide array of treatments, including but not limited to oxygen saturation monitoring, radiographs, tracheotomy, and blood gas evaluation.

Reverse Sneezing

This is the only example of a respiratory event that is not an emergency. If you feel that your pet is reverse sneezing but aren't sure, try to calm them down.

If there is no improvement in the breathing then head to the ER. I know reverse sneezing can be scary, especially if you have never experienced it before.

When my girl starts to reverse sneeze I talk in a soothing voice and pet her back. She calms and stops. I suggest letting your veterinarian know if your pet has these reverse sneezing fits; it's not a call-right-away situation but bring it up at your next examination.

Heat Stroke

This is a big one. Being located in a rather humid and warm area, we see a lot of heat stroke, especially with the brachycephalic breeds since these guys are very sensitive to heat. Essentially, just like us, our pets can overheat. It can be fatal.

Signs of heat stroke include:

  • Excessive panting
  • Collapse
  • Stupor
  • Seizures
  • Increased heart rate—you can feel pulses easily by placing your index finger on the middle portion of the upper inner thigh.
  • Vomiting or diarrhea

Heat stroke is serious. As I mentioned, they can die. I've seen it. It's sad. It's traumatic. You can prevent it by not exercising your dog when it is hot, which can be relative based on breed. Ensure that your pet has plenty of cool water. Ensure that your pet has a cool place to go when it is hot outside.

 German shepherds are at risk for GVD or gastric-dilatation volvulus.

German shepherds are at risk for GVD or gastric-dilatation volvulus.


Nearly everyone that has a breed of dog that is deep-chested knows the perils of GVD or gastric-dilatation volvulus.

Essentially, the stomach flips–a torsion—causing a blockage. There is no direction for the contents to escape. The common name for this condition is bloat. Pets can also experience food bloat, which typically happens if a dog has unrestricted access to a large amount of food. The food is stuck in the stomach and the stomach has no means to digest or rid itself of such a large burden.

Signs of bloat can include the following:

  • Restlessness or pacing
  • Swollen dissented abdomen—may have a drum-like appearance.
  • Non-productive retching
  • Distress

GVD needs immediate medical intervention. The pressure on the stomach needs to be relieved or the excessive food needs to be removed. Often, an orogastric tube is placed. The pet may even require emergency surgery to tack the stomach to the walls of the abdomen.

Any dog can experience food bloat; however certain breeds are more predisposed to GVD.

Some common breeds include:

  • Great Danes
  • German shepherds
  • Basset hounds
  • Standard poodles

Not sure if your breed is included? Take a look at your dog. Do they have a deep chest compared to their abdomen?

Severe Trauma

While a broken dew claw may bleed quite a bit and can be distressing for everyone involved, it is not considered a true emergency.

Severe trauma includes:

  • being hit by a car
  • a degloving injury (do not look up pictures if you have a weak stomach)
  • bite wounds
  • obvious fractures
  • falling from high places or being stepped on

If you are concerned about your pet losing a lot of blood, they should have medical care as soon as possible. Shock can set in quickly and if not attended to, it can be irreversible. At least the pet will need antibiotics and wound treatment, at worst they may require hospitalization and blood transfusions.

If you are concerned about bleeding from a minor wound, call your veterinarian or emergency vet if it is after hours. They will be able to assist with at-home care and can help you determine if your pet should be seen.

Lillies, and many other house plants, are toxic to cats.

Lillies, and many other house plants, are toxic to cats.

Ingestion of Known Toxins

If you know your pet has ingested something that is a known toxin, you should seek emergency medical care. You should also call poison control, which will charge a small fee. This fee helps to maintain their database, which is more extensive than anything your vet will have—I promise. It will also allow the veterinarian at poison control to assist your veterinarian at the hospital to determine the best course of treatment for your pet.

What are some examples?

  • Rat bait
  • Large amounts of chocolate, particularly darker chocolates
  • Ingestion of human medications, including human NSAIDs.
  • Antifreeze
  • Lillies, and many other house plants, for cats
  • Ingestion of wild mushrooms

Cats in particular are unable to metabolize many substances in the same way humans or dogs can, which can lead to toxic levels building up very quickly.

Again, if you aren't sure if something is toxic to your pet, it is best to call poison control. They will be able to tell you for sure what is and isn't safe. They can even tell you when to monitor at home and when you need to seek immediate care.

Having needed to call poison control for many clients, I can tell you they are some of the nicest people and the information they provide is invaluable to your veterinarian.

Loss of Consciousness

I feel this one is pretty self-explanatory. If your pet is not responsive, you need to go to the ER. Period. This includes collapse; seizures that are repeated or will not stop; head trauma.

Wrapping It Up

Are there other emergencies that warrant rushing to the ER? Of course. Can I cover all of them? No, I can't.

I strongly advise that if you feel your pet needs emergent care, do not waste time looking up symptoms online. Start to pack up your pet; get someone to help you if you can; and call the place you are intending to go. Let them know how long it will take you to arrive, what the situation is, and if you will need help bringing your pet inside. They may be able to advise you to go elsewhere, or come straight in—they could have time to prepare for your arrival.

We've had clients call in with suspected emergencies, and I've been able to prepare items for an IV catheter, get the crash cart open and ready for use, find a veterinarian to take the case on arrival, and meet the client at the door with a stretcher. It saves time, and it can save a life.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

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