By Maura McAndrew
Every pet, throughout the course of their lives, will encounter some health issues. Even with annual vet checkups (and these are a must), your pet will occasionally show signs that all is not quite right in their world. Unfortunately, pets can’t tell us what’s wrong, so it’s easy to overreact—or worse, underreact—to any given situation.
“Pets want to please their owners and are great at hiding pain or discomfort or if they are simply not feeling well,” says Dr. Mel Paquin, chief medical director of the Animal Medical Center of Surprise in Arizona. “[They] will have a much better prognosis if you are proactive in getting them seen by a professional.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to drag your dog to the vet every time his dinner doesn’t agree with him. But there are some conditions that should set off alarm bells, as they can indicate something seriously wrong. We’ve compiled a list of these conditions that cannot wait. If you see these signs, you’ll need to take your pet to the vet immediately.
“If a dog or a cat has an increased breathing rate or an increased respiratory effort, they should be brought to a veterinarian immediately,” advises Dr. Virginie Wurlod, assistant professor in small animal and emergency critical care at the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine. Difficulty breathing can indicate a host of life-threatening conditions, Wurlod says, such as pneumonia, congestive heart failure, heartworm, severe anemia, or disease of the pleural space (between the lungs and chest wall). A veterinarian will need to monitor your pet closely, perform a physical exam, and run tests to determine the cause of the breathing difficulties, and treatment varies based on diagnosis.
Vomiting and diarrhea are an occasional fact of life with pets. In dogs in particular, diarrhea and vomiting are common consequences of a change in diet, eating too much or too fast, or eating that spoiled Taco Bell burrito they found in the park. But frequent and severe episodes of vomiting and diarrhea in pets can indicate serious medical issues, especially when accompanied by symptoms like lethargy (“If your pet is lying around, doesn’t greet you at the door, or is hiding,” according to Paquin), pain, or pale gums. “Diarrhea and vomiting can be caused by dysfunction of many different organ systems, like the gastrointestinal tract, pancreas, urogenital system, or liver,” Wurlod says, adding that leaving these conditions untreated “can also lead to severe dehydration.” A veterinarian can prevent or treat dehydration by replenishing your pet’s fluids, while also running tests to check for underlying medical issues.
While diarrhea is a bit more obvious, you also need to be aware if your dog or cat is suddenly not defecating or urinating. “If you are not seeing urination within a four- to eight-hour timespan, this is a sign that the pet should be taken to a doctor,” Paquin states (though the timeframe may vary by pet, how much they drink, and how often they typically urinate). And if a pet makes frequent attempts to urinate without being able to do so, something is up. Likewise, with defecation, you should be aware of any deviation from your pet’s normal habits. Paquin notes that “vocalization upon urinating or defecating” should be particularly alarming, as it means your pet is likely in pain. This can suggest “a complete blockage of the urethra,” he says, or colon in the case of constipation. These symptoms can stem from infections, tumors, physiologic or metabolic disorders, lesions of the spinal cord, and more.
Sure, dogs and cats cut themselves every now and then, just like we do. But as with vomiting and diarrhea, degree of severity is important to note here. If a pet is bleeding profusely, the American Veterinary Medical Association recommends covering the wound with a gauze pad and applying pressure to it. Check after a minimum of three minutes. If your pet continues to bleed after several minutes, emergency care is the best recourse. “Any active bleeding should always be investigated,” Wurlod advises. “It can be a result of a traumatic injury and require surgical treatment, or could indicate an abnormal clotting ability or other systemic disease.” If your pet’s blood is not clotting properly, expect your veterinarian to run a number of tests before implementing a course of treatment.
If your dog or cat has a noticeably distended abdomen, it’s extremely important to get it checked right away, Wurlod advises. “It could be associated with a food bloat, but could also be seen in a patient with a large amount of abdominal effusion [free fluid] or gastric dilation and volvulus (GDV),” she says. It’s especially important for large dog owners to be observant of these signs, as GDV is most common in large breeds. “Dogs presenting with GDV can be restless, in pain, retching but unable to vomit,” she adds. According to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons, treatment for GDV includes intravenous fluids, oxygen therapy, gastric decompression, and surgery. “If left untreated, these dogs’ cardiovascular function will be affected” and they often die, Wurlod warns.
This one should be alarming to any pet owner: “If a pet is unable to stand or walk, immediate care should be sought,” Wurlod says. There are many reasons your dog or cat might have trouble moving around, she explains, such as neurologic conditions relating to the spinal cord, brain, or nerves; cardiovascular conditions such as severe anemia or heart failure; or metabolic conditions like electrolyte disorders or hypoglycemia. A veterinarian will examine your pet to better understand the extent of the problem and its underlying cause, and will run a number of tests to come to a definitive diagnosis and determine the appropriate treatment. By this same token, Wurlod notes that any time your pet loses consciousness or collapses, emergency care is necessary.
Many pets, particularly dogs, live with epilepsy, the most common cause of seizures. Usually under the watch of a good veterinarian, they manage just fine. However, seizures can be a symptom of other serious issues, so it’s best to seek immediate care if your pet experiences a seizure, particularly if it’s the first time. “Seizures can present in a variety of forms depending on their severity,” Wurlod says. She notes that with focal seizures, pets may simply twitch or bite at themselves, but the more serious grand mal seizures are associated with “a loss of consciousness from the pet, involuntary movements (like paddling), and possible urination, salivation, and defecation.” Causes of seizures vary, she says, from “hypoglycemia, portosystemic shunt, or toxins” to “infectious or inflammatory causes” or tumors. If you bring your pet to the vet following a seizure, they will typically conduct a full physical and run a battery of tests. Medication to reduce seizures is standard treatment for epilepsy, but other treatments could be required depending on the diagnosis.
When it comes to a traumatic incident or ingestion of a toxin, emergency care is crucial. “As the old adage goes, it’s better to be safe than sorry,” Paquin says. He cites a snake bite as an incident that requires an immediate trip to the vet. Similarly, Wurlod says, “If the pet is observed eating or chewing on any potential toxins like human medications, plants, cleaning products, or food such as chocolate, we recommend contacting the Pet Poison Helpline or the ASPCA to determine if you need to seek immediate treatment.” She adds that pets who have ingested particularly dangerous substances may require “extended critical care,” and can die if left untreated. She also emphasizes that traumatic events (such as being hit by a car) should always, always prompt an emergency trip to the vet, even if you don’t see obvious signs of injury or distress. “Many internal injuries, such as bleeding into the abdomen or chest, pneumothorax, lung contusions, bladder rupture, or fractures, will not be obvious to a pet owner but can be life-threatening,” she says.
According to Paquin, pets need prompt care if you have observed approximately “one day of not eating or drinking,” depending on your dog or cat’s usual appetite and behaviors. There are many medical possibilities if your pet is refusing food or water including cancer, liver disease, or kidney disease. Paquin also notes that lack of appetite can suggest “fluid within the lung cavity or abdomen,” which can be a true emergency. On the flipside, Paquin also cites excessive drinking as an issue requiring quick care, as it can be a symptom of uremia or kidney disease. Pets exhibiting any of these behaviors will need to see a vet sooner rather than later, where they will undergo a full checkup to determine the cause of their symptoms and appropriate treatment.