Knowing when to take your pet to the emergency vet

Our furry, feathery and scaly friends can very easily find themselves in the kind of trouble which requires a trip to the vet. Whether it's from eating something they shouldn't have, an accident or suddenly falling ill. But what do you do if your regular vet is closed? Should you wait until morning or should you go to your nearest after hours emergency vet?

It is important to know what a pet emergency is and how to recognise one. This guide will help you to recognise when your pet needs urgent medical attention as well as what to do in emergency situations before you arrive at the emergency vet.

What is a pet emergency?

Dog having its paw bandagedWhat is a pet emergency and when does your pet need to see a vet urgently? Some pet emergencies are easily recognisable, such as breathing difficulties and severe bleeding. But other pet emergencies are not so easily identifiable. There may also be times when you might not be sure whether you should get up in the middle of the night and find your closest after hours emergency vet.

Remember, no one knows your pet like you do, and if they are behaving in a way that is unusual for them or something doesn't seem quite right, you may have picked up on a subtle sign of a real problem. If you are ever unsure if your pet is ill or injured we always recommend giving your local vet a call for advice. If your local vet is closed your nearest emergency vet, with just a few questions over the phone, will be able to help you decide if your pet needs immediate medical attention or if they can wait until morning when your regular vet is open.

Signs of a pet emergency

While some pet emergencies are obvious in requiring urgent treatment, sometimes the signs can be so subtle it can be hard to know if your pet is experiencing a medical emergency. Below are some of the most common pet emergencies we see in our hospital. If your pet is experiencing any of the below conditions or symptoms they will need to see a vet immediately as they can become life-threatening:

  • Tick paralysis: Symptoms of tick paralysis can quickly become severe and life-threatening if left untreated.
  • Snake bites: If your pet has been bitten by a snake or has been seen near a snake, even if they collapse and seemingly recover this is a sign urgent treatment is needed.
  • Cane toad poisoning: If your pet is displaying any symptoms of cane toad poisoning it is most likely they have eaten or licked one.
  • Heat stroke: If your pet is panting excessively, feels very warm to touch, or has a high-temperature event these may be signs they are suffering from heat stroke.
  • Major trauma: This includes traumatic events such as being hit by a car, falling from a height, a cat or dog fight or attack, being kicked by  a cow or horse, and blunt force. Even if your pet is not showing any signs of injury there can be extensive internal injuries.
  • Blood loss: Bleeding that doesn't stop by itself should be attended by a vet to avoid excessive blood loss. Bleeding from unusual places, blood spots on the skin and bruising can also be signs of certain blood disorders and should be seen by a vet. 
  • Penetrating wounds: Bite wounds or stab wounds can cause significant internal damage even if the wound looks minor on the surface.
  • Evidence of poisoning: Is it possible your pet has been exposed to or ingested a toxin? The list of things toxic to our pets is long and includes human foods, plants, insecticides and pesticides, and medication. For a more in-depth list, visit our Pets and Poisons blog
  • Seizures: While an isolated seizure is unlikely to be life-threatening, seizures lasting for more than 2-3 minutes or having more than 2-3 seizures in a 24-hour period are cause for concern. Seizures can be caused by a large list of things and it is recommended that if your pet has a seizure they are seen by a vet. 
  • Difficulty breathing: Has your pet stopped breathing, having trouble breathing or is their breathing noisy? If your animal is displaying any signs of breathing difficulty we recommend they see a vet immediately. 
  • Swollen or distended abdomen: Swollen, distended and hard abdomens can be a sign of some very serious conditions, such as a GDV (gastric dilation and volvulus) - when the stomach twists and bloats. This is an emergency requiring immediate veterinary attention. 
  • Collapse or weakness: These can be symptoms of serious illness and injuries, including internal bleeding, heart failure, snake bites and tick paralysis all of which require urgent veterinary treatment.
  • Loss of balance: Is your pet unable to maintain their balance and keeps falling over?
  • Vomiting: A symptom of a number of problems such as pancreatitis, gastrointestinal obstructions, gastrointestinal parasites, infections, ingestion of a toxin, and kidney or liver disease, just to name a few. Repeated vomiting can also very quickly lead to life-threatening dehydration so we advise they be seen by a vet as soon as possible.
  • Diarrhoea: Like vomiting causes of diarrhoea is a long list. Diarrhoea can vary in severity and if prolonged leads to severe dehydration. Regardless of severity treatment is required.
  • Struggling to urinate: Male cats are susceptible to urinary obstructions which are life-threatening. If your male cat is straining to urinate they should see a vet immediately. While straining to urinate is less common in other pets, they should be seen by a vet as this can be caused by bladder stones, urinary obstructions, and urinary tract infections which can be very painful and in some cases life-threatening. 
  • Not eating and/or drinking: Pets not eating or changes in eating behaviours can be a sign of illness and if prolonged can result in dehydration as they are not meeting their needs. 
  • Coughing:  Can range in severity from relatively harmless conditions like kennel cough to life-threatening disorders such as heart disease, pneumonia and some bleeding disorders. All pets with a cough should be checked by a vet.
  • Loss of rear legs: This paralysis can be a symptom of tick paralysis or spinal injury both of which require veterinary care.
  • Severe pain: If your cat or dog is exhibiting any sign of pain such as vocalising, limping, or hiding treatment should be sought immediately.
  • Birthing problems: If you have any concerns about your pet's pregnancy then a vet should be contacted for advice. If your pregnant pet seems to be experiencing problems during labour medical intervention may be needed. 
  • Burns and smoke inhalation: Has your pet been burnt or been exposed to a significant amount of smoke?
  • Broken bones: History of recent trauma, limping, appear to be in pain or limbs are sitting at a strange angle could be signs of a broken bone. 

While this list doesn't cover every possible pet emergency it does give a small insight into the kind of situations that need immediate veterinary treatment. 

Should I go to the emergency vet if my pet has an emergency?

White dog having its paw bandaged at the vetIf your pet is experiencing any of the above conditions or symptoms, they require urgent veterinarian treatment. Without treatment, these conditions and symptoms can quickly progress and become life-threatening.

If you are concerned about your pet's health when your primary vet is closed and you are unsure on whether to wait until morning when they reopen, it is best to err on the side of caution. A visit or a call to an after hours emergency vet, even if it turns out not to be a pet emergency, is worthwhile just for the peace of mind it will bring you. Over the phone, they will be able to provide guidance as to whether you should take your pet immediately to them, or if waiting until morning would be okay. Nothing is ever too small or insignificant for a vet to see or give advice about your pet. 

You should never feel anxious about your pet's health. If for any reason you're feeling uneasy about a health concern, our Animal Emergency Service hospitals are fully staffed and open every weeknight, and 24 hours on weekends and public holidays. Our team are here to guide you as to whether your pet needs to see a vet as well as provide first aid advice over the phone. No appointments are required to see our vets, and if you are unable to call us you can bring your pet straight to us.

What to do in a pet emergency

Pet emergencies are extremely stressful. While we all hope our pet will never need emergency medical treatment, it is important to know what to do in these situations just in case.

  1. Keep calm and try not to panic
    While it may be hard the best thing to do in these situations is to be as calm as possible. Not only will this help you to think more clearly, as our pets are highly attuned to our emotions by keeping calm it will prevent any further stress transferring to our pets.

  2. Keep your pet calm
    Keep your pet as calm and quiet as possible. Try to keep their movements to a minimum, especially if there is any chance of broken bones, spinal injuries, or neurological symptoms. Take care if your pet is in pain or in distress as they may become aggressive or bite.

  3. Perform basic pet first aidLabrador holding a pet first aid kit in mouth
    If you didn't see what happened to your pet, check the area for any potential danger to yourself or further danger to your pet. There may be clues as to what happened to your pet or what your pet interacted with or ate. Once it is safe to do so, observe your pet's behaviour and breathing. You may also need to check their heart rate or pulse, temperature, and level of consciousness depending on the injury your pet has sustained or the symptoms they are showing. In some situations, you may need to perform basic pet first aid before arriving at the vet, such as CPR and slowing bleeding. 

  4. Let your emergency vet know you are on your way
    If possible call your emergency vet before you leave or while you are in the car, or have someone else call for you to let them know you are on your way so they can be better prepared for your arrival.

  5. Safely transport your pet to the vet
    1. Minimise handling: If your pet is conscious allow them to get comfortable. For large dogs encourage them to lie down but don't force them as they may find the position uncomfortable. For small dogs a washing basket or wrapped in towels/blankets. For cats always use carriers.
    2. Handle with care: Avoid rough handling or restraints as this may cause further injury.
    3. Minimise movement: For traumatic injuries it is best to treat your pet as if they have sustained a spinal injury, by avoiding rotation of the spine or neck. Use a firm, flat support surface for transportation, such as an ironing board or cupboard door.
    4. Recovery position: If your pet is unconscious keep them in the recovery position during travel. For the recovery position place them on their side and tilt their head down slightly unless they have sustained trauma to their head then tilt their head up.
    5. Drive with care: Avoid sudden braking or acceleration. Slow down at turns as your pet can further injure themselves attempting to maintain their balance.
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Is there first aid treatment I can administer to my pet at home?

Most pet emergencies will require veterinary care immediately. However, it is good to know some basic pet first aid care you can administer at home straight away. These basic methods will help to stabilise your pet so you can safely transport them to the vet and can even help to save your pet's life.

How does an emergency vet work?Pet owner arriving at an emergency vet with cat

Once you arrive at the emergency vet you will be greeted at the door by a nurse who will triage your pet. If your pet is suffering from a severe medical emergency they will be taken straight through to the treatment area where further assessments and stabilisation and treatment can begin.

For other cases, the emergency veterinarians will treat pets in order of medical priority.

What is an animal blood bank?

Most emergency vets have a pet blood bank as there are many cases where the crucial treatment is a blood transfusion. This life-saving treatment can often mean the difference between life and death for patients whose lives are threatened by illness, trauma, surgery, or poisoning incidents.

Unfortunately, blood has a short lifespan, only being able to be stored for 35 days. Because of this, regular donations from our amazing blood donors are not only very much welcomed, but also very much needed.

For more information on what is involved in being a canine blood donor, visit our Canine Blood Donation Q&A blog.

To find out the criteria and to register to become a canine blood donor, visit our Blood Donor Program page.

How to be prepared for a pet emergency

While we always hope our pets don't experience an emergency, it's always best to be prepared in case it does happen. A few steps to take to ensure you are ready for any emergencies include:

  • Know the phone numbers of your primary vet, closest vet clinic, closest emergency hospital, and pet ambulance.
  • Know the address of the primary vet, closest vet clinic, and closest emergency hospital.
  • Know how to get to your primary vet, closest vet clinic, and closest emergency hospital. Take the time to do a dry run so as you become familiar with the streets and travel time.
  • Not all vet clinics have an attending vet at the time they open - find out the starting time for your primary vet.
  • Download our Vital Signs Observation List of what to monitor for when your pet becomes unwell.
  • Know what is normal for your pet and regularly monitor their health to check for any changes.
  • Learn about conditions that may affect your pet. For example, if your pet is pregnant learn about how a normal birth progresses and how to recognise if there is a problem. 
  • Keep a well-stocked pet first aid kit at home and even one in the car for when you and your pet are out and about.
  • Learn how to perform basic first aid, including CPR, how to stop bleeding and how to apply a pressure wrap. There are now a number of in-person and online pet first aid courses available, such as the Australian Red Cross veterinary-approved short online course.
  • Plan ahead for financial coverage, such as money kept aside for situations like these or look into pet insurance.

 

If you suspect your pet is ill or injured, visit your nearest Animal Emergency Service hospital or your local vet immediately.