Is It a True Emergency? These 19 Conditions Shout 'Help!'

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

emergency pet care

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  • If your pet is injured or ill, it can be challenging to determine whether you can take care of the situation at home or whether you need to have your dog or cat seen by a veterinarian
  • Some conditions require emergency veterinary care, such as severe bleeding or ingestion of a toxic substance
  • Other conditions are urgent, but not emergencies, such as mild allergic reactions
  • And then there are minor injuries and illnesses you can safely treat at home

If your pet becomes ill or injured, it can be difficult to determine what can be safely taken care of at home and what requires a visit to your veterinarian or the nearest emergency animal hospital. On the one hand, you don't want to put your already uncomfortable furry family member through the additional stress of an unnecessary veterinary visit, but on the other hand you want to be sure she gets medical attention if she needs it.

Another consideration: since dogs and especially cats are hard-wired to hide symptoms of illness and injury, if your pet is showing signs of discomfort or minor pain, there's a good chance the situation is worse than she's letting on.

It's always best to err on the side of caution. If you're in doubt, take your pet in to be checked out. Regular wellness visits will also help you and your veterinarian know what's normal and what's not for your pet, as well as whether existing health conditions are worsening or improving.

Conditions That Require Emergency Care

For some medical issues, for example, mild diarrhea or a minor skin irritation, it's appropriate to make a non-urgent appointment with your veterinarian. In other cases, waiting isn't an option, as it could put your pet's life at risk. Some of the medical conditions, symptoms and situations that warrant emergency veterinary care are listed below. If you notice any of the following, get your pet to an emergency veterinary clinic immediately.

Severe bleeding or bleeding that doesn't stop within five minutes

Choking, difficulty breathing or nonstop coughing, and gagging

Bleeding from nose, mouth, rectum, coughing up blood, or blood in urine

Inability to urinate or pass feces (stool), or obvious pain associated with urinating or passing stool

Injury to an eye(s)

Ingestion of a toxic substance (such as antifreeze, xylitol, chocolate, rodent poison, etc.)

Seizures or staggering

Fractured bones, severe lameness or inability to move leg(s)

Obvious signs of pain or extreme anxiety

Heat stress or heatstroke

Severe vomiting or diarrhea — more than two episodes in a 24-hour period, or either of these combined with obvious illness or any of the other problems listed here

Refusal to drink for 24 hours or more


Penetrating wounds to the chest, including deep lacerations or punctures

A fever over 104oF with profound lethargy

Bulging eyes and sudden blindness

Burns or injuries in which a bone is exposed

Loss of balance (inability to right herself or falls over due to inability to maintain balance)

Symptoms of bloat (gastric dilatation volvulus), including a very distended abdomen, unproductive belching, retching or vomiting, abdominal pain, restlessness, shallow, rapid breathing and pale gums

Urgent (but Typically Not Emergency) Situations

Eye problems — If you notice any changes in your pet's eyes or vision, you'll want to call your veterinarian and schedule an appointment for the following day. Eye problems may include injuries, such as a scratch, eyelid or eyelash problem, chronic diseases like glaucoma, and more.

Vomiting and diarrhea — Mild vomiting and diarrhea can be dealt with at home, provided they resolve quickly, and your pet is not lethargic or showing other signs of illness. If vomiting and diarrhea continue for more than 24 hours, you'll want to seek veterinary care.

For mild diarrhea, offer a teaspoon of 100% pumpkin (canned or cooked) for every 10 pounds of body weight, one to two times a day, either in your pet's regular diet, bland diet or as a treat (this also works to relieve constipation and hairballs in cats).

Allergic reactions — Minor allergic reactions to insect bites or stings and food can typically be dealt with at home. Your pet may experience minor swelling, hives or itching, but if she's having trouble breathing or seems uncomfortable, seek veterinary care right away.

For a mild allergic reaction to a bee sting, offer homeopathic Apis mel, quercetin or Benadryl if the swelling is not being controlled by natural methods. Serious allergic reactions require an immediate visit to your veterinarian or the closest emergency veterinary clinic.

If your pet's allergic symptoms are chronic, I recommend consulting with an integrative veterinarian who can help you get to the bottom of what's causing your pet's allergies, as well as develop a natural treatment plan for relief.

Quick Tips for Treating Minor Pet Injuries and Illnesses

Nail injuries — Dogs and cats can slice up their nails in a variety of ways – everything from a too-close nail trim that nicks the quick, to running outdoors over sharp rocks. Solution: styptic powder. If you don't have styptic powder on hand, for minor bleeding grab either cornstarch or flour from your kitchen, pour some into a small bowl, and dip the injured paw into the powder to stop the bleeding.

Cuts and scrapes — Many pets manage to acquire minor cuts and scrapes while running around the backyard or out for a walk. Solution: contact lens saline solution. You can clean dirt and debris from your pet's minor wound with regular human contact lens saline solution. You can also use it to flush out dirt, sand or other irritants from your pet's eye.

Constipation, diarrhea, hairballs, and other minor digestive issues — Most pets at one time or another experience GI issues that last for a few days and disappear. Solution: canned pumpkin. It's a good idea to keep a can of 100% pumpkin in your kitchen cabinet for occasional mild tummy upsets.

Give a teaspoon of pumpkin for every 10 pounds of body weight, one to two times a day, either in food or as a treat. Pumpkin is rich in soluble fiber that can ease both diarrhea and constipation.

Itchy, inflamed or irritated paws — This is a very common problem, especially in dogs, and especially when the weather turns warm. Solution: foot soaks. Soak your pet's paws in a solution of water mixed with povidone iodine (brand name Betadine) — add enough iodine to turn the water the color of iced tea. This will safely disinfect and soothe your pet's paws while removing irritants. Be aware that this solution may stain white fur a darker shade.

In most cases of even a minor pet injury or illness, after applying a home remedy, it's still a good idea to follow up with your veterinarian to ensure your dog or cat is receiving appropriate care. Chances are you won't need an appointment, but your vet may want to note the information in your pet's chart for follow up at your next regularly scheduled visit.

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