12 Reasons to Call Your Veterinarian Within 24 Hours

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pet health issues

Story at-a-glance -

  • Since our pets can’t talk to us about how they’re feeling, it’s up to us to watch them closely for health signs that require the attention of a veterinarian
  • Generally speaking, any change in a dog’s or cat’s health that doesn’t resolve within 12 to 24 hours warrants a call to your vet
  • Things to watch for include a change in your pet’s elimination habits, loss of appetite, extreme fatigue and a sudden behavior change

As your pet’s devoted guardian, you want to do everything possible to keep your dog or cat healthy and happy. Sometimes, when something about your pet suddenly changes, it can be tough to figure out exactly what’s going on and what to do about it. Thankfully, dogs and cats often rebound quickly on their own when they experience minor health issues, but it’s important to carefully monitor your pet for signs of illness that require a visit to the veterinarian.

12 Reasons to Call Your Veterinarian

1. There’s a change in your pet’s poop — Make an appointment with your veterinarian if the appearance of your dog’s or cat’s poop changes or he’s eliminating more or less often than usual, and the situation lasts for more than a few days. There might be a problem with his diet, or he could have a virus, a bacterial infection, intestinal parasites, organ dysfunction, consumed an irritant or foreign body or some other problem.

If you see blood in your pet’s feces or urine, definitely call your veterinarian. Digested blood in poop will appear as black tarry stools; fresh blood indicates bleeding in the colon or rectum. Either situation is cause for concern and should be investigated as soon as possible.

Blood in urine, called hematuria, can be obvious or microscopic. There are a number of serious disorders that can cause bloody urine, including a blockage in the urinary tract, a bacterial infection and even cancer.

2. Your pet is suddenly drinking more water than usual — If your cat or dog is suddenly drinking her water bowl dry, there’s reason to be concerned. Excessive thirst (along with excessive urination) is a symptom of several disorders, including urinary tract problems, diabetes and kidney disease.

3. Continued vomiting — If your pet vomits just once or twice in a 12-hour period and then seems fine and his appetite is normal, chances are he ate something that didn’t agree with him and he’s fine. However, if he vomits more than twice or continues vomiting the next day, it can be a sign of something more serious. This is especially true if there are other symptoms such as lack of appetite or lethargy.

Repeated vomiting can signal the presence of a wide variety of problems, including the presence of a virus, an intestinal obstruction, pancreatitis, an endocrine disorder, toxicosis or organ failure.

Vomited blood is a definite red flag and can be either bright red (fresh) or resemble coffee grounds (indicating partially digested blood). There are a variety of reasons your pet might vomit blood, some of which are relatively minor, but others are serious and even life-threatening.

4. Loss of appetite and/or weight loss — Often, loss of appetite is the very first sign of an underlying illness in pets. There can be many reasons your dog or cat isn’t hungry or refuses to eat, but not eating can begin to negatively impact her health within 24 hours. And for puppies and kittens 6 months or younger, the issue is even more serious.

Weight loss is the result of a negative caloric balance, and it can be the consequence of anorexia (loss of appetite) or when an animal’s body uses or eliminates essential dietary nutrients faster than they are replenished. Weight loss exceeding 10% of your pet’s normal body weight will be a red flag for your veterinarian. There can be several underlying causes, some of which are very serious.

5. There’s a change in your dog’s or cat’s breathing pattern — If your pet has labored breathing or shortness of breath that occurs when she breathes in or out, she’s experiencing respiratory distress. Breathing difficulties can mean that not enough oxygen is reaching her tissues. Additionally, pets with heart failure may not be able to pump enough blood to their muscles and other tissues.

A faster-than-normal resting respiratory rate can also be a sign of substantial pain, fluid buildup in the lungs or decreased lung capacity, which can be caused by heart disease, pneumonia, cancer or other respiratory diseases. If your pet has sudden undiagnosed breathing problems, she should see a veterinarian immediately.

6. Hair loss — There are a number of skin conditions, infections and systemic diseases that can cause a dog’s or cat’s coat to thin out and bald spots to appear, including compulsive disorders such as psychogenic alopecia. If your pet is losing his coat, even if it’s just in one spot, you should make an appointment to see your veterinarian.

7. You notice a new lump or bump — One of the most common conditions in pets, especially older dogs, are growths that develop in or just beneath the skin. Most of the time, these lumps and bumps are harmless, though they can be unsettling and ugly, but it's important to have them evaluated by your veterinarian. It's rare that a growth requires emergency action, however, occasionally a mass like an abscess or cyst may require urgent care.

If your pet is really uncomfortable or you know the mass is growing or changing, you'll want to make an appointment with your vet, preferably within 24 hours. But rarely is it necessary to visit an emergency animal hospital or make an emergency appointment with your vet because of a lump or bump.

My recommendation when you find a growth is to monitor it. If it is growing or changing quickly, it's best to see a veterinarian sooner rather than later. If you notice, for example, a discoloration on the skin or what looks like a skin tag that doesn't get bigger or change over the course of days, weeks or months, then just mention it to your vet at your pet's next wellness exam.

But again, if the area is changing rapidly, you do need to have your pet seen as soon as possible. Your veterinarian should perform a fine needle aspirate, which involves inserting a needle into the lump, extracting cells and typically, sending samples to a pathologist for evaluation and a preliminary diagnosis.

8. Your pet seems extremely tired or lethargic — A lethargic pet will appear drowsy, “lazy” and/or indifferent. She may be slow to respond to sights, sounds and other stimuli in her environment. Lethargy or exhaustion is a nonspecific symptom that can signal a number of potential underlying disorders, including some that are serious or life-threatening. If your pet is lethargic for longer than 24 hours, it’s time to make an appointment with your veterinarian.

9. Coughing that lasts more than a day — Coughing in pets, unless it’s a one-and-done situation, generally indicates an underlying problem. Examples include a possible windpipe obstruction, kennel cough, asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, heartworm disease, heart failure and tumors of the lung. All causes of coughing require investigation, and in most cases, treatment.

10. Your pet’s behavior changes — The first sign most pet parents notice in a cat or dog who is ill or hurting is a change in behavior, which is why it’s important to take sudden behavior changes seriously. Cats instinctively look for places to hide when they're injured or ill; dogs tend to look to their humans for relief. Any change in your animal companion’s behavior that lasts longer than a day warrants a call to your veterinarian.

11. Eye changes — If the white area of your pet’s eye turns bright red, it’s a sign of inflammation or infection that signals one of several diseases involving the external eyelids, the third eyelid, the conjunctiva, cornea or sclera of the eye. Redness can also point to inflammation of structures inside the eye, eye socket disorders and also glaucoma.

Certain disorders of the eye can lead to blindness, so any significant change in the appearance of your pet’s eyes should be investigated.

12. Trouble urinating — This includes discomfort while urinating, straining to urinate and frequent attempts to urinate with little success. If your pet cries out while relieving himself, seems preoccupied with that area of his body or is excessively licking the area, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian right away. There are several underlying causes of urinary difficulties, some of which can result in death within just a few days.

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