What exactly IS an emergency?

In this climate we are being reminded to not contact your vet unless it is an emergency. At Astonlee, we want to ensure that you contact us by phone with any concern or questions as usual, but we may decide that coming into the practice isn’t necessary. In light of that, we thought it would be good to outline some definitive emergency situations whereby being seen is still essential, and some where urgent attention should be sought - but do call ahead so we can make the relevant provisions for getting you in and out of the practice safely.

We wanted to start this with a cautionary tale; many years ago, a friend of Astonlee noticed his dog's stomach was swelling. The dog didn’t seem to be in any pain or discomfort however, so the owner went to bed as normal and thought he would contact us in the morning if he felt the situation hadn’t passed - he didn’t want to bother us. Unfortunately, the dog had passed away during the night which is every owner's (and vet’s) worst nightmare. The owner wasn’t aware that sudden bloating was something urgent and we were unable to advise accordingly as we weren’t contacted. Please get in touch if you have any concerns - we are still here and ready to look after you and your pets!

So, if you notice any of the below, then please call us immediately. If you notice something else that is not usual for your pet, also call us.

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 a 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! 

10) Heatstroke

Animals with heat stroke can suffer organ damage very quickly, so get them seen to! It’s also quite easy to accidentally make things worse by cooling them too fast, so ALWAYS talk to your vet if possible before doing anything to them.

11) Near-drowning

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.  These symptoms can be associated with the death of your pet if not treated within 12- 24hours or less.

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!  A pet rubbing their eye could be a sign of a foreign body in the eye or a scratch on the eye which could result in the loss of the eye if not treated promptly ideally within 24 hours.

15) Ear problems 

If you notice your pet is shaking their head or rubbing one ear or both it could be an infection, foreign body like a grass seed or other problems, many of which can result in the risk of ruptured eardrum and deafness in the affected ear, or severe infection that is difficult to treat if left more than 1-2 days.  Grass seeds and other foreign bodies can cause the dog or cat very severe distress, so ring us for an appointment in the ‘urgent category’..

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.