Common Pet Emergencies

By Alex Molldrem, DVM on Apr. 12, 2012
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Preparing for the Worst-Case Scenario

By Alex Molldrem, DVM


It can be quite frightening to see your pet suffering, especially if you are unsure the situation should be considered an emergency. When in doubt, always contact your veterinarian or the nearest animal hospital. But to hopefully better prepare you, here are 10 of the most common pet emergencies found in emergency veterinary hospitals around the country.

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#10 Pain

Pain can occur in pets for several reasons and can be displayed in a variety of ways. Pacing, agitation, restlessness, panting, rapid heart rate, or even aggression, are all symptoms of possible pain. Spinal pain can often times be misinterpreted as abdominal pain, and vice versa. If your pet is acting in a strange way and you suspect pain, contact a veterinarian immediately.

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#9 Difficulty breathing

Increased respiratory effort typically occurs when the lungs or airway is compromised. This can occur due to trauma, allergic reactions, heart failure, toxins, infectious agents, cancer, or leakage of air. Any difficulty breathing should be considered a serious problem, requiring immediate evaluation by a veterinarian. Often radiographs are necessary to evaluate the lungs and airways.

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#8 Seizures

Seizures are episodes of abnormal electrical activity within the brain. They can be triggered by intra-cranial problems (such as epilepsy, brain tumors, or brain swelling) or extra-cranial problems (such as low blood sugar, electrolyte disturbances, etc). Any seizure can be life threatening. Seizures can occur singly or in clusters, and can occur at any time and in any frequency. If your pet has a seizure, seek veterinary care as soon as possible.

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#7 Difficulty Urinating

Straining to urinate is a symptom of more than just a urinary tract infection. Many pets will strain to urinate if they have crystals or stones in their bladder. Inflammation, blood clots, cancer, or even stress alone can all cause difficulty urinating.  If a pet is straining and is unable to pass any urine, it is a life threatening emergency that needs to be addressed by a veterinarian immediately.

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#6 Vomiting and Diarrhea

Vomiting and/or diarrhea are some of the most common emergencies pets can have.  These nonspecific gastrointestinal signs could be caused by a primary gastrointestinal problem (such as getting into the garbage or having an obstruction) or by a secondary cause (such as metabolic disease, cancer, etc).  Dehydration can occur quickly, and depending on the underlying cause, symptoms can drastically worsen in a matter of hours.

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#5 Coughing and Choking

Choking can be a serious problem, even if the symptoms resolve within seconds. Lack of proper oxygenation or the build-up of fluid within the lungs can be dangerous consequence of choking. Coughing is a vague symptom of several possibilities, including viruses, bacteria, fungal pneumonia, allergic bronchitis, or even heart failure. Any compromise in your pet’s respiratory ability should be evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

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#4 Blunt force trauma

Many pets sustain some sort of blunt force trauma in their life.  The external appearance of a pet can be deceiving.  Even a minor bump by a backing up car can prove to be life threatening due to internal injury, some of which can take hours to become apparent.  If your pet has sustained any sort of blunt force trauma, seek veterinary care right away.

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#3 Toxin Ingestion

Pets are curious about their environment and sometimes this can get them into trouble. Toxins can be ingested, absorbed across the skin, or inhaled. Rodenticides are extremely common toxins in pets, but so are several household materials, such as cleaners, medications, plants, batteries, antifreeze, insecticides, paint, chocolate, xylitol containing products such as sugar-free gums, and fertilizers. If you suspect your pet has been poisoned, immediate veterinary care can make all the difference. Call the Pet Poison Helpline at 1-855-213-6680.

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#2 Allergic Reactions

Pets can commonly develop allergic reactions. Causes of these reactions range from vaccine sensitivity to insect bites. Symptoms generally include facial swelling, hives, and itchiness, but may also include profuse vomiting and diarrhea, lethargy, or difficulty breathing. Veterinary care is necessary if you suspect an allergic reaction in your pet.

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#1 Dog bite wounds

Although a dog bite wound may appear small, the damage to the underlying tissues is usually much more extensive. Dog bites tear the layers of skin, fat, and muscle apart, creating a pocket of air, seeded with infection. In some cases, penetration into the chest or abdominal cavity can become life threatening. Veterinary care is a must with any bite wound, no matter how minor it may appear on the surface.