How do I know when my pet needs immediate veterinary attention?

Dr. Mavis McCormick-Rantze graduated in 2003 from the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. She also has undergraduate degrees in Animal Science and Zoology from the University of Georgia.

Besides small animals, Dr McCormick-Rantze has a strong interest in avian and exotic animals. She lives in Cumming with her husband and their two children, five cats, and two saltwater fish tanks.  Dr. McCormick is the owner of Lanier Animal Hospital, 5700 Cumming Highway, Building B, Sugar Hill, GA  30518.

This month's question is actually a very serious one for me, as it is sometimes very hard for owners to recognize when their pet requires immediate medical attention. After all, they can't directly tell you how they feel or where it hurts. But in all the years I have been a veterinarian or even a technician, I have learned that if a client thinks it is an emergency, they are likely right. Owners have an uncanny ability to know something is “off” with their pets that can lead to a major, possibly life-threatening, emergency if something is not done quickly. Examples:

  • An owner notices that her cat keeps trying to defecate but doesn't get any stool out, which can actually mean that the cat can’t urinate because of a blockage – a major life threatening issue.

  • An owner notices that his 10-year-old dog has just been laying around for a day or so and not really wanting to eat, and that turns out to be a hemoabdomen (blood in the abdomen).

The difficult part of deciding to go the veterinarian is how quickly to go. Sometimes owners think, “Well, Fluffy will feel better tomorrow.” But in some cases, tomorrow or the next day might be too late or the pet is so sick by then that it will need a very lengthy and expensive stay at a veterinary hospital in order to survive.

Some things are easy: If your pet is hit by a car, it might look like he is fine. He can walk around and there are no broken bones. BUT such a major impact can cause internal bleeding or tears in the diaphragm at a minimum. Your dog might not be clinical right away but tomorrow he may be on the verge of death. It is very important to go to the vet after any major trauma to get bloodwork and x-rays to make sure things are OK.

Another major life threatening problem in dogs that might not be so easy for the owner to figure out is commonly called bloat (our fancy medical term is gastric dilatation and volvulus – GDV for short). This is when the stomach basically rotates on itself and cuts off the inflow (esophagus) and outflow (pylorus) of the stomach. Owners usually call and say that their dog is trying to vomit but absolutely nothing is coming up and maybe the stomach is tight or a little enlarged. This is a MAJOR emergency and usually by the time you get to the vet your dog is in major shock. GDV requires hospitalization and surgery to correct in order for the patient to live.

I could talk for hours about many different clinical signs and presentations that call for immediate veterinary attention BUT… for your sake and mine I will include a short but by no means all-encompassing list of occurrences of symptom that should prompt an immediate visit to your vet:

  • Eating something the pet was not supposed to, such as a toxin (rat poison),grapes, a toy, a sock or any other foreign body (If you suspect your pet has swallowed a poison, take the box to the vet with you.)

  • Inability to urinate or urinating small amounts

  • Constipation (what sometimes looks like constipation might turn out to be another serious problem)

  • Snake bites

  • Being stung by a bee or insect , followed by lots of vomiting and diarrhea (anaphylaxis)

  • Prolonged seizures

  • Heat stroke (In the hot Georgia sun, as little as 10 minutes of playing on a hot day or just minutes in a hot car can cause this.)

  • Difficulty breathing or open mouth breathing (gums could be pale or blue/purplish)

  • A unilateral eye problem ( I have seen animals lose an eye because of an unrecognized corneal ulcer)

  • A small puppy or kitten not eating (They can get hypoglycemic and dehydrated very quickly.)

  • Acutely paralyzed or dragging rear legs

  • Prolonged unproductive labor of greater than 2 hours

The bottom line is that I really encourage owners to err on the side of caution if they think something is wrong with their pet, and take them to a veterinarian. Not every life threatening emergency is as obvious as a hit by a car and, personally, I would rather be told that things aren’t so bad and can be treated than that I waited too long and now my precious furry baby might die.