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Emergencies occur suddenly and without warning. It is important for all pet owners to have a basic understanding of common veterinary medical emergencies and basic first aid for their pet.

Some emergencies are obvious. A dog runs across the road and is hit by a car. Others may be just as serious - but not as obvious. A German Shepherd appears restless after a large meal and tries to vomit. Unknown to the owner, this is the beginning of Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus (GDV), one of the most serious medical emergencies in large breeds.

While no one can be prepared for all emergencies, there are some simple guidelines and clinical signs that all pet owners can follow and look for to help their pet loved ones. Who knows, it just may save your pet’s life?


Are there any particular emergencies then that I should look out for?  


Listed below is a list of common emergency situations with a brief description of their clinical signs. This list is not intended to be comprehensive but should serve as a guide. In any emergency or illness, be sure and contact your veterinarian as soon as possible for more specific recommendations and assistance.

Anaphylaxis. This is a severe allergic reaction and is often recognized by sudden collapse and severe breathing difficulties. There are many causes for anaphylaxis that vary from insect stings, contact allergies to injection reactions. You should seek veterinary care immediately if you think your pet may be experiencing anaphylaxis.

Bites and fight wounds. These are particularly serious if:

·         There is a lot of bleeding

·         They involve the head (particularly eyes, ears, nose or throat) 

·         They have  penetrated internal organs or the abdomen (stomach or groin)

Bleeding. When is bleeding an emergency?  When is it severe? Blood pumping out or dripping so fast that it is making a pool on the floor or blood soaking through a normal bandage within a very few minutes is cause for alarm. These are examples of severe hemorrhage. Ears, nose, feet and even torn nails can bleed severely and need veterinary attention to stop the loss of blood as quickly as possible.

Burns and scalds. Unless you witness these injuries, they are not frequently apparent until some time later when scabs or loss of hair or skin are noted. This is because the initial injuries are masked by the hair coat. If you see your pet burned or scalded, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Persistent vomiting and/or diarrhea. Repeated or continuous vomiting and/or diarrhea, with or without blood, could be a sign of poisoning, obstruction or acute gastrointestinal infection.

Dehydration is a major concern, especially in small dogs. Contact your veterinarian as soon as possible before forcing fluid or administering human medications. You may inadvertently give something that worsens your pet’s condition.

Convulsions or seizures. A convulsion or seizure is a series of violent, uncontrolled spasms. Seizures lasting for more than three to five minutes or accompanied by loss of bowels or urination are considered serious and medical attention should be sought immediately.

Eclampsia. Eclampsia is also known as hypocalcemia, milk fever, or puerperal tetany. It is a condition that not only affects nursing mothers but may also occur during late pregnancy. Signs are vague and include restlessness, panting, increased salivation and stiffness when moving. This can soon progress to muscle twitching and spasms, pyrexia (high fever) and death. Contact your veterinarian if you are concerned that your pet is developing eclampsia.

Hemorrhagic gastroenteritis. This condition is characterized by bloody diarrhea and/or vomiting. There are many causes of hemorrhagic enteritis ranging from a change in diet to stress to intestinal obstruction. Contact your veterinarian if you observe blood in the stool, if the vomiting or diarrhea persists beyond 6-12 hours or if your pet becomes less responsive or weak.

Heart failure. Also called heart attack, cardiac failure, and cardiac insufficiency. How do you recognize if your pet is experiencing heart failure?

As dogs age, they may suffer from a condition called congestive heart failure (CHF) which may affect either the left, right or both sides of the heart. The condition is often undiagnosed until collapse occurs. Other signs of this condition include coughing, difficulty breathing, bluish discoloration of the tongue (and other mucous membranes), decreased stamina and exercise intolerance.

A “heart attack” – or when the dog collapses – is often preceded by exercise or excitement. The inefficient heart is unable to pump blood fast enough and there is a severe lack of oxygen to the muscles and brain, which results in sudden collapse.

If you observe any of these signs, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Heat stroke. This can happen at any time in warm, humid weather. Most frequently it is the result of dogs left in cars in hot weather with too little ventilation. The signs are excessive panting, lethargy and distress. Unconsciousness can quickly follow.


Injuries. When do injuries become an emergency?  This will be determine by the type and extent of wounds and may be difficult to tell without medical tests. Any penetrating wound to the chest or abdomen and virtually any injury involving the eye should be regarded as an emergency. Injuries to the head or causing difficulty breathing should also be treated as emergencies.


Poisoning. Poisoning of any sort will be regarded as an emergency. If you see your dog ingest a suspicious substance, call your veterinarian. Your pet will most often lick, swallow or contact toxic materials without your knowledge. Clinical signs are variable: vomiting, diarrhea, collapse, skin damage due to caustic substances, etc. Seek veterinary care as soon as possible to help reduce the spread and further damage of toxins to your pet.

Unconsciousness or collapse. This may occur with or without seizure activity. It often occurs without warning, e.g. sudden heart failure or following a blow on the head etc. Collapse should always be treated as a medical emergency.


What should I do in an emergency?

1.       Keep calm and try not to panic. By doing so, you will be able to answer any questions from your veterinarian and help your pet loved one.

2.       Contact your veterinarian. Explain what has happened and follow the advice given.

3.       Keep your dog warm and as quiet as possible

4.       Keep your pet as still as possible when moving to reduce the risk of further injury to limbs or spine.

5.       Carry out any procedures (first aid) advised by your veterinarian.

Transport your dog safely to the veterinarian as directed.



This client information sheet is based on material written by Ernest E. Ward Jr., DVM

 © Copyright 2002 Lifelearn Inc. Used with permission under license. June 30, 2004.