What’s the difference between a dog needing urgent treatment and a true emergency? In my book, an emergency is immediately life-threatening, while urgent treatment is important, but the dog isn’t in imminent danger.
You’d be surprised how some people ramp up the pressure and call something an emergency because they are worried, want to be seen and think applying pressure is the only way. This is fine (to a point) because expert vets understand this goes with the territory. However, what’s frustrating is when conditions that have not been an emergency become “urgent” because the client turned a blind eye to earlier symptoms.
Take the itchy dog with red, raw skin, who’s suddenly seen as an “emergency” because for weeks the person ignored the constant scratching. Not that I’m belittling scratching, but when the dog is otherwise hale and hearty, it isn’t life-threatening, and the word “emergency” is misplaced.
Vets are fully able to spot many emergencies at a thousand paces just by the symptoms. Some signs are guaranteed to have the vet’s full attention in seconds because they are true emergencies with the real potential to endanger life.
Some True Emergencies
When things go seriously wrong, a dog can die in minutes or hours, and delaying is not an option. Bear in mind this is not a comprehensive list, but here are some examples I’ve seen of true emergencies where prompt treatment gave (or would have given) the dog a fighting chance of survival.
1. Bloat or Gastric Dilation and Volvulus (GDV)
Bloat can kill horribly quickly. Indeed, a sad case springs to mind where the parent failed to act and paid a horrible price. One night, he said goodnight to his beloved German Shepherd but came down in morning to find him dead on the kitchen floor. Overnight, the dog’s stomach had twisted, filled with air and caused catastrophic circulatory collapse and a heart attack.
Even with emergency stabilization and corrective surgery, survival rates for GDV are around 50%. However, the cases that do best are those seen as an emergency.
If you see any of the following signs, contact the vet immediately:
- Retching, but the dog is unable to bring anything up
- Sudden onset stomachache, especially if the dog is a breed with a deep chest and recently eaten
- A distended abdomen
- Heavy drooling, especially when showing signs of restlessness or distress
2. Internal Bleeding
From ruptured tumors (notably of the spleen) to dogs with clotting problems, these dogs can go downhill very quickly. The signs include:
- A sudden loss of energy or weakness
- Pale gums
- Labored breathing
- The tummy that looks oddly distended or swollen
A top tip is to lift the dog’s lip and check his gums. They should be a nice pink color. If they are pale, ashen or white, contact the vet immediately. Again, no vet is going to mind you checking in day or night when there’s the faintest suspicion of internal bleeding.
3. Difficulty Giving Birth
Many people are surprised their female dog is in pain while giving birth. This is normal. The trick is to recognize when things stop being normal and there’s a problem. Again, no vet minds you asking for advice, but it’s also helpful to read up on what to expect before she goes into labor. Crucially, ahead of whelping, it’s also helpful to know how many pups the mother is carrying.
Just some of the signs a female dog is struggling include:
- Heavy straining for 2 hours without the arrival of a puppy
- Straining for more than 1 hour between puppies
- An absence of straining for 6 hours, but the mother still has puppies in the womb
4. Road Traffic Accident
Of course, the dog with open fractures or is bleeding heavily must be blue-lighted to the vets, for obvious reasons. But any traffic accident, no matter how seemingly minor, should be seen as an emergency. Even the dog who walks away from a collision may have sustained internal injuries that aren’t immediately apparent.
5. Eaten Poison or Toxic Foods
When a dog eats something they shouldn’t that is potentially toxic, it’s essential to make them sick (always get vet advice before trying to make your dog vomit). Sadly, there’s no 100% safe reliable way to do this at home, so an injection by the vet is the best option.
However, the longer the substance is in the digestive tract, the more is absorbed. Thus, it’s crucial to induce vomiting within 1–2 hours at most. Longer than this, and the harm may already be done.
One extremely sad case was a gorgeous spaniel who stole and ate a pack of raisins from his person’s handbag. It wasn’t until several hours later she read about raisins being toxic to dogs and sought help. By the time I saw the dog, his kidney enzymes were already raised. Despite aggressive intravenous fluids, the damage was done, and the dog went into slow kidney failure and died several weeks later.
These veterinary students are training to provide care in emergency pet situations:
Be a responsible person and get your pet the care they need before things run out of control. That way, you can nip problems in the bud and prevent them getting to “emergency” status. Remember, a true emergency is usually a sudden event, so there are few justifications for a pet who’s had a problem for days or weeks getting to “emergency” status.
Never be afraid to phone the clinic for advice. Certain signs will instantly have the vet’s attention, so all you need to do is accurately describe what you see. And if your gut instinct tells you something is wrong and you aren’t satisfied with the vet’s answer, tell them it doesn’t feel right. A good vet will respect that and review the symptoms with renewed caution.
But last of all, don’t ramp things up by using the word “emergency” if you know the pet would be OK to wait. If this sounds like sour grapes, know there’s a reason for the rant: While the emergency vet is seeing an itchy dog, it takes their attention away from the dog who’s been hit by a car or has acute breathing difficulties.
In short, if your dog was bleeding out but the vet was detained seeing a dog with sore skin, would you be happy?
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Nov. 24, 2017.