Recognizing Pet Emergencies

By Lyssa Fansler, LVT

Have you ever wondered how your veterinarian knows if your pet can wait to be seen or requires immediate care? In the veterinary world, a pet is evaluated by staff using triage. Triage means the nurse does a brief evaluation to assess if the pet requires immediate care or can wait to see the veterinarian after a wait.

What does emergency mean in veterinary medicine? When a veterinarian or veterinary nurse explains "emergency," they will say that it is an abnormality that can lead to severe debilitation or death within seconds to minutes. The veterinary staff member will categorize your pet based on the severity of the symptoms. The lower the level, the more stable the nurse believes the pet to be. The higher the category, the faster the staff member will transport the pet to the treatment area for immediate care.

When a nurse comes to the lobby to speak to you, they will visually evaluate your pet's status. You might not even notice what they are doing. Multitasking is a superpower that veterinary nurses have. While that nurse is asking you about your pet's symptoms, the nurse will also evaluate your pet's breathing, alertness, and other blatant abnormalities. So, what do the veterinary nurses notice that you, as the owner, can see at home? I will review some common signs noted in various body systems that you, as the owner, can see without special training, if you don't mind. I will also give some examples of pet emergencies.

Cardiovascular involves the heart and bloodstream. Common signs of distress or emergency include but are not limited to:

  • Active bleeding from any source. A wound that will not stop bleeding is an example of active bleeding.
  • The heart is beating hard through the chest wall. You can feel the heartbeat by placing your hand on the left side of the pet's chest, where the elbow meets the chest. Fold the elbow up to the side of the chest. The spot the elbow meets the chest is the best place to feel the heartbeat.
  • Collapse or fainting

Respiratory involves breathing, the lungs, and oxygen use. Common signs of distress or emergency include but are not limited to:

  • Not breathing
  • Panting in a cat
    • While panting in a dog is normal, panting in a cat is never considered normal. Even if the cat is stressed, panting is an emergency until otherwise determined that it is not emergent.
  • Increased effort to breathe. When the pet breaths, the abdomen moves. When breathing becomes difficult, you should watch the waistline to determine whether inhalation or exhalation is hard.
  • Purple or blue gum color
  • Coughing that causes difficulty breathing

Gastrointestinal involves the mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines, and colon. Common signs of distress or emergency include but are not limited to:

  • Blood in vomit or stool
    • Blood in the vomit or stool can be any shade of red, including but not limited to bright red and dark red.
  • Black stool that looks like tar and smells foul.
  • Inappetence for an extended period. Suppose a cat has not eaten in the last 24 hours. In that case, it should be seen by a veterinarian immediately to prevent life-threatening liver disease. Dogs can go a little longer than cats before not eating becomes a severe issue. However, the lack of an appetite can indicate something else.
  • Excessive vomiting or diarrhea
    • Excessive vomiting and diarrhea are especially detrimental in young and senior pets.
  • Bloated abdomen that is hard like a basketball
  • Retching or trying to vomit without producing anything from the stomach
    • A life-threatening condition called GDV, commonly known as bloat, can be seen in any breed and size. I have witnessed GDV in a Chihuahua, so it is not only a large-breed disease.

Urinary involves the urinary bladder and passing of urine. Common signs of distress or emergency include but are not limited to:

  • Inability to urinate for more than 8 hours
  • Blood in the urine
  • Straining to urinate can appear like the pet is trying to defecate for an extended period.
  • Any male cat that appears to have "UTI" like symptoms should be considered a life-threatening emergency and seen immediately. Neurologic involves the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. Common signs of distress or emergency include but are not limited to:
  • Seizures
    • In pets with epilepsy or another seizure disorder, it is an emergency when they have more than one seizure in 24 hours.
  • Disorientation
  • Falling over
  • Difficulty walking

Musculoskeletal involves bones and muscles. Common signs of distress or emergency include but are not limited to:

  • Open fractures with bone visible
  • Inability to use one or more legs
  • Paralysis
  • Unable to move head and neck normally

Other emergencies to remember include but are not limited to the following. These emergencies can vary in the affected area but are just as important as individual body system emergencies.

  • Chronic disease complications
    • Heart failure
    • Syncope
    • Heart murmur
    • Kidney disease
    • Seizures
    • Diabetes
    • Addison's disease
    • Cushing's Disease
    • Asthma
  • Heat stroke/exhaustion
    • A healthy body temperature for a dog and cat is 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit, plus or minus one degree. You can get your pet's temperature using a digital rectal thermometer. You should use a water-based lubricant when getting the temperature.
    • When a pet's temperature goes above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, life-threatening changes occur within the body.
  • Drowning or near-drowning
    • Near-drownings happen when a pet falls into a swimming pool and cannot get out on its own.
  • Toxin ingestion
    • Sago palm
    • Chocolate containing foods
    • Nuts (especially Macadamia nuts)
    • Onions, garlic, raisins, and currants
    • Flowers
      • Azaleas or rhododenrons
      • Lilies
      • Tulips
      • Hydrangeas
      • Devil's Ivy or pothos
      • Lantana
      • Daffodils
      • Hostas
    • Avocado
    • Coffee or other caffeine-containing products
    • Alcohol
    • Yeast dough
    • Sugar-free products that contain xylitol
    • Medications
    • Vitamins or supplements
    • Rat, mouse, mole, and snail bait (any bait, really)
    • Recreational drugs
  • Snakebite (especially to the face, mouth, and eyes)
  • Hit by vehicle
  • Attacked by another animal
  • Foreign material ingestion
    • String
    • Toys
    • Sticks
    • Corncobs
    • Cloth
    • Batteries
    • Metal objects
    • Sharp objects
    • Coins

As you can see, many things can tell you that your pet is experiencing an emergency. As a pet owner, it is crucial to recognize a pet emergency. Can you identify a crisis now? I hope so.

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