What is an emergency?
Yesterday, my first case of the morning was a collapsed cat with breathing difficulties. I prepared myself for a sad morning.
The cat was only 3 years old, and the most common cause of collapse in young animals is trauma, so I was all geared up to administer IV fluids, pain relief and take radiographs.
A Miraculous Recovery
However, the cat who strolled out of the carrier, tail in the air, was anything but collapsed. She nimbly jumped onto a worktop, sniffed around and hopped down to rub against my ankles.
Meanwhile, her human stared in open-mouthed amazement at the miraculous improvement.
I duly examined the cat and found her left hip slightly tender on full extension. Piecing the picture together, I found it likely the cat had been chased inside by a neighbor’s cat, strained her hip in the getaway and arrived home out of breath.
My client was absolutely right to get her cat examined, but if she’d waited just 5 minutes, the cat would have caught her breath and returned to normal. All of which set me thinking about how anyone knows when emergency care is essential for a pet and when it’s OK to wait.
When to Wait and Monitor
Anyone who is worried should watch the pet closely, note the source of the worrying and phone the veterinary clinic for advice.
That said, if the pet is only slightly off-color, then sometimes waiting can be beneficial. Think of those times when you’ve caught a bug. You might feel tired, achy and disinterested in food, but it’s only 1 or 2 days later that you start to cough or sneeze and realize you have the flu rather than a tummy bug.
If a normally healthy pet is quiet for a day (with no sickness, diarrhea, cough or sneezing), waiting may give specific symptoms a chance to develop, which can help the veterinarian target treatment. Also, the pet may bounce back the next day and avoid a trip to the vet altogether.
10 Signs to Seek Emergency Treatment NOW
Certain signs have “Urgent!” stamped all over them. These include:
- Non-productive retching: Trying to vomit but bringing nothing up is a sign of gastric torsion and a blue-light emergency.
- Difficulty passing urine: Indicates a urinary infection or a more serious blockage — definitely not one to watch and wait.
- Breathing difficulties: Rapid, shallow breathing; using the tummy muscles to breathe; or cats mouth-breathing are all indications that urgent attention is needed.
- Blood: Bleeding from a wound, and blood in vomit or diarrhea — phone the vet ASAP.
- Confusion, disorientation, non-responsiveness: From a stroke to high blood pressure or dehydration, these signs need recognizing and acting upon.
- Extreme vomiting or diarrhea: Repeated sickness (several times over 1 hour or lasting longer than 4 hours) or copious liquid diarrhea both add up to fluid loss.
- Vaginal discharge: A purulent discharge is a sign of pyometra, which requires urgent attention.
- Difficulty giving birth: Speaks for itself and you need to speak to a vet — urgently.
- Trauma: Hit by a car? Even if the pet seems OK, get him checked for internal bleeding.
- A rabbit who stops eating: Rabbits need to eat regularly or their gut shuts down. If your rabbit stops eating, treat it as an emergency — the sooner he gets help, the better the outlook.
When to Seek Same-Day Attention
Some problems are urgent but not emergencies, meaning you can wait a couple of hours before phoning the vet. For example:
- Not eating for more than 24 hours, but the pet is otherwise well
- Not eating that day, but the pet is lethargic
- Vomiting (just started)
- Straining to pass feces (be it diarrhea or constipation)
- Unusually quiet and withdrawn, especially if you suspect a fever
When to Get a Checkup
Some problems aren’t urgent, but they include signs that something is amiss. Schedule a checkup for any of these symptoms:
- Change in the pet’s character (from peaceful to aggressive, from laid-back to hyperactive)
- Change in the pet’s habits (waking at night, becoming clingy)
- Change in thirst — be vigilant for an increase in thirst (it’s helpful to take a urine sample to the appointment)
- New lumps and bumps — get all lumps checked out to decide whether they need action or can be left alone
- Scratching or itchiness
All of the above is my opinion and intended only as a guide. Just as my client did yesterday morning with her cat, use your discretion. It is always better to visit and find that everything is OK than ignore a potentially serious problem.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Oct. 23, 2015.