Obviously, if you have any doubts – give your vet a ring! There’ll always be someone on duty who will be able to give advice over the phone, even if it isn’t an emergency that needs seeing right now. However, there are only thirteen or fourteen conditions that are genuinely life-or-death emergencies, and these need seeing RIGHT NOW. If your pet is suffering from one of the following conditions, they need seeing – as soon as possible. So, don’t delay – call your vet and then get in the car and drive!
The fourteen major conditions are:
1) Difficulty breathing
If a dog or a cat is unable to oxygenate their tissues, then their organs will start to shut down. Most tissues can survive for 15 minutes or so – but not the brain (3 minutes) or the heart (about 5 minutes max). Signs of difficulty breathing may be obvious (choking, gasping, pawing at throat), or more subtle (cats, for example, may start breathing through their mouth – often a sign of severe, life-threatening lung damage). Possible causes include foreign objects in the airway, stings or allergic reactions around the throat and airways, feline asthma, pneumonia, and chest injuries.
2) Severe bleeding
If a major artery is cut, a dog or cat can bleed to death in minutes. If the blood is spurting, it’s an emergency, because it means that an artery is open! Likewise, even non-spurty blood that doesn’t stop within 5 minutes needs seeing ASAP. Remember, too, if they’re bleeding from somewhere unusual (like their bottom, or mouth) you don’t know where the bleeding is, or how bad it is, so assume the worst. Bleeding wounds are, however, one of the few conditions where prompt first aid can save lives – put pressure on the wound to slow the bleeding, and then get to your vets so they can repair the injury!
3) Traumatic injuries
If your dog’s fallen out of a window, your cat’s been hit by a car, or your rabbit isn’t able to weight bear on a leg – this should be treated as an emergency. It may look like “just” a sprain, but firstly, this is incredibly painful; and secondly, there might be more severe injuries that you can’t see from the outside. Many animals that suffer chest trauma, for example, seem fine initially, and die later from lung bruising – a condition that can be treated if diagnosed in time. So even if it doesn’t seem too bad, let your vet check them over!
4) Bloating (in dogs)
Bloating is usually as symptom of a gastric dilation and volvulus (GDV, also known as a torsion), a fatal condition. Emergency decompression and surgery saves lives, so if you notice your dog blowing up like a balloon, or retching but only producing froth, get them seen to.
5) Signs of brain damage or dysfunction
This would include loss of consciousness, fitting, collapse, or severely abnormal behaviour. The brain is a delicate organ, and if it starts to go wrong, it’s an emergency. If uncontrolled, fitting can lead to death in thirty minutes or less, so if a seizure lasts more than 5 minutes, or two occur close together, the animal needs emergency treatment. If your dog is epileptic and your vet has given you suitable advice, you may be able to take a more relaxed approach – but if in doubt, give them a call!
6) Inability to weight bear on one or more legs; or move a limb or limbs
Broken bones and paralysis may or may not be life-threatening on their own – but again, it does depend on what other injuries there are. These types of symptoms need checking out and examining by your vet as soon as possible. In any case, it’s completely unfair to leave your animal in that state!
7) Known or suspected poisoning
Many poisons can be counteracted with prompt action – but if you wait until symptoms occur, it’ll be harder, and the chances of a good outcome drop rapidly. It’s much better to get it seen to early!
8) Inability to urinate
This is most common in tomcats, but it can happen in any animal. If the bladder keeps filling but the animal cannot urinate, it will lead to kidney failure, bladder rupture, and death from internal poisoning. Your vet will be able to pass a tube to empty the bladder, buying time to diagnose and fix the underlying problem.
9) Difficulty in whelping or kittening
Most bitches whelp, and most queens kitten, quite happily on their own. However, if anything goes wrong, it can go very wrong, very quickly. As a rule of thumb, a bitch shouldn’t go more than 2 hours between puppies, bleed significantly, or strain hard without producing anything. Queens are similar, but if she’s been straining for 20 minutes without production, it’s an emergency. If in doubt – call your vet!
Animals with heat stroke can suffer organ damage very quickly, so get them seen to! It’s also quite easily to accidentally make things worse by cooling them too fast, so ALWAYS talk to your vet if possible before doing anything to them.
Like humans, animals can suffer from secondary drowning, where the damage to their lungs causes them to go into respiratory arrest and die minutes or even hours after being brought out of the water. If you’ve pulled your pet from a pool or pond, get them checked by a vet as soon as you can.
12) Severe, intractable vomiting
The occasional vomit is actually quite normal, especially in dogs, and isn’t necessarily an emergency. However, if the animal cannot keep water down, seems ill in themselves, or looks “not right”, it’s time to get them checked out. Yes, it will probably be nothing sinister – but you can’t afford to take the risk.
13) Severe pain or anxiety
We can’t always see severe, even life-threatening injuries or illnesses from the outside – but in many cases, your pet will be able to feel them. That’s what pain is for: a warning of serious tissue damage – so use your pet’s built-in early warning system!
14) Damage or injury to the eyes
OK, this is very unlikely to be life-threatening. However, any damage or injury to the eyes is liable to be sight-threatening, and none of us want that. Eyes are delicate, so get them looked after!
Of course, all animals are unique, and occasionally a dog, cat or other pet will find some other form of injury or illness that needs urgent attention. As a result, as vets, we have to rely on you – you know your animal, and if they’re not right, call your vet and get them checked out!
If in doubt as to whether or not to disturb your vet’s sleep, you can always use our symptom checker.
I can tell you, though, that I’d rather have a disturbed night’s sleep and save a life, than sleep through the night and find out in the morning that they’ve passed away.