Article by Kimberly Juhlin, DVM, CVA, Vale Park Animal Hospital
How do you know if your pet needs to be seen by a veterinarian right away?
The first thing to know and be familiar with is what a normal, healthy pet looks like. They have bright, clear eyes with no sign of redness or discharge; clean ears, free of buildup or odor; a mouth with moist, pink gums, free of infection; teeth that have little or no tartar; no swollen, bleeding gums, nor excess bad breath; their breathing should be even and easy, without wheezing, coughing, or discharge from the nose; they should have a shiny coat, with unblemished skin, free of lumps and bumps. A healthy pet is bright and alert, with a normal appetite and thirst. They should have formed bowel movements that are easily passed; Urination that is not urgent or difficult. Urine should be clear and light yellow in color. They should walk, run, jump, sit, stand and lay down without difficulty or lameness.
Anything to the contrary is reason to have a pet checked. But is it a "go to the veterinarian this very minute" emergency?
Some situations that are “must see the vet now” include seizure, loss of consciousness, difficulty standing, excessive unexplained weakness, excessive bleeding, difficulty breathing or excessive coughing. Hint: look at your pet’s gums. They should be pink. If your pet’s gums are very pale, white, purplish or grey, this is a true life threatening emergency. Any suspected poisoning should warrant immediate attention, including anti-freeze (one teaspoon can cause acute kidney failure in a cat or small dog), rodent poisoning, snail bait or ingestion of human medications or chocolate. One Tylenol can cause liver failure in a cat. The decongestants in many anti-histamine medications can be lethal to dogs. Topical insecticides meant for dogs are toxic if applied to cats. Spider bites and stinging insect bites are potentially life threatening, causing milder reactions such as hives, swelling of the face and throat or, less frequently, full blown anaphylaxis, shock and collapse.
After checking your pet’s gums, you could take your pet’s temperature, rectally. This is done by putting a little KY jelly or Vaseline on the tip of the thermometer. Gently insert the thermometer into your pet’s bottom about an inch. The thermometer should slide in easily. After a minute, remove and check the temperature. Normal is between 100 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit for dogs and cats; anything below 99 or above 103 is worth a call to the veterinarian right away. Note: if your pet resists this procedure in any way, stop. You will stress your pet and they may bite you.
Sometimes situations that might not seem urgent really are serious. These include eye injuries or allergic reactions, swelling around the face or hives. A single incident of vomiting or diarrhea is not usually cause for concern, but repeated episodes over the space of an hour or day, could indicate a serious problem. Unusual breathing (louder than normal, greater effort taking a breath, excessive panting (+/- drooling), and repeated bouts of coughing) should not be ignored.
In male cats, straining or an inability to urinate, licking their penis frequently or seeming painful in the lower abdomen are signs of urinary obstruction which is a life threatening emergency. Sometimes, straining to have a bowel movement can also require immediate attention, or at least a call to the vet.
Sometimes your pet may appear alright even though they have just sustained a traumatic injury, such as being hit by a car, sustained bite wounds from another animal. Don’t be fooled, even if your pet looks okay, you are well advised to take them to a veterinarian right away. After a trauma, to be checked for internal injuries that could potentially kill them if left untreated. This might include a punctured lung, a bleeding liver, spleen or kidney; or a ruptured bladder. Bite wounds and cuts should be addressed before infection can develop, which begins by 6 hours post contamination. Doing so can help prevent the development of abscesses, address any deep tissue damage and suture the wound closed.
Other situations may not appear to be life-threatening but they potentially are. Animals that are not eating or drinking are often seriously ill. A cat that fails to eat for as little as 48 to 72 hours can develop a fatty liver, leading rapidly to liver failure.
Finally, some conditions are not life threatening but are painful enough to warrant immediate veterinary attention. Painful animal behaviors include panting, labored breathing, lethargy or restlessness, loss of appetite, aggression, hiding, or crying out. These are signs that your pet is very stressed and suffering. It may not be good to wait until your regular veterinarian is available to provide safe and effective pain relief.
Never give human pain relievers to your pet without first consulting a veterinarian. Many human pain relievers are toxic to dogs and cats, causing kidney or liver failure, or life threatening gastrointestinal ulceration.
Important numbers to have posted on your refrigerator and in your mobile phone include:
1. Your primary veterinarian’s phone number
2. North Central Veterinary Emergency Center: (877) 542 2119, (219) 785-7300, 1645 U.S. 421 Westville, IN 46391
3. ASPCA Animal Poison Control: 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
If you think that your pet may have ingested a potentially poisonous substance, call (888) 426-4435. A $65 consultation fee may be applied to your credit card.
When in doubt, call your veterinarian or local emergency veterinary clinic! It is better to be safe than sorry.