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What Constitutes a Veterinary Emergency?

With summer upon us and the ease of travel restrictions, many of us will be keen to explore beyond our backyards but at home or away, accidents and illnesses do happen.

If you're not within easy reach of your local vet, what do you do?
Veterinary Nurse Leah Eichner has worked in emergency and critical care for years and she shared her expertise with us.

It's the middle of the night, your heart drops as you look deep into the trusting eyes of your furred friend. You know there is something wrong. The question is... how serious is it? Is this something that can wait until morning? Is it worth waking up the 'on-call' vet or driving to the nearest 24 hour emergency hospital?

This is a situation many dog parents have found themselves. So, how do you decide whether to spend the extra money on emergency vet care or wait until your clinics normal open hours? There are some tell-tale signs to look out for.

#1. Vomiting, Diarrhoea and Lack of Appetite

Gastrointestinal (GI) upset is one of the most common complaints we see in veterinary clinics. These symptoms can be caused by a number of different problems. We always recommend a vet consult for any dog who has GI upset.

These signs alone are not always cause for emergency veterinary attention. If your dog is quite bright and happy despite the GI upset, it may be okay to wait until your vet's normal opening hours to have them seen.

Seek emergency veterinary attention when these symptoms are accompanied by:

✔️ Lethargy / listlessness
✔️ Restlessness or obvious discomfort
✔️ A significant amount of blood in the vomit or faeces
✔️ Known toxin or foreign body ingestion (the dog has eaten something it shouldn't have)

#2. Seizure

Seeing your pet seizure can be a frightening experience, especially for pet parents who are seeing it for the first time. Seizure always needs to be reported to your vet but how do you know when a seizure is an emergency?

If the seizure was a short episode that your pet was fast to recover from, try to stay calm. Watch your pet, without bothering them too much. Keep them in a safe area, where they can rest if they want to. If they settle, it may be okay to wait until normal open hours to have them seen to.

You should seek emergency veterinary attention when:

✔️  The seizure does not stop after a couple of minutes

✔️  The seizure stopped half an hour ago but your dog is continuing to show neurological signs (e.g. off balance or unable to stand/walk, head tilt, blindness, disorientation, will not settle)

✔️  The seizures continue to happen. There is a 'cluster' of seizures, meaning more than one happening within a short amount of time. Even if your dog is a known epileptic, cluster seizures are cause for emergency care.

✔️ When there has been possible access to a toxin (there are some toxins that cause seizure when ingested, one of the worst for this is snail bait).

#3. Sudden Onset Bloating of the Stomach

Bloating of the abdomen is one symptom you should never ignore. If it is sudden onset bloating, this is always an emergency situation. 

Gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV, commonly called 'bloat') is a condition seen mainly in large breed, deep chested dogs. With this condition, time is of the essence. The quicker your dog is seen, the better their chance of survival. GDV is a painful condition and can be accompanied by panting, vomiting, lethargy and general discomfort. In some cases, it causes dogs to collapse. If there is any chance your pet has bloat, don't wait. Seek immediate vet care.

GDV is not the only cause of a bloated abdomen in dogs but many other conditions that cause a distended abdomen are also emergency situations. It is best to be safe and get your dog checked straight away if they have this symptom.

#4. Excessive Panting and/or Coughing

Panting can mean many things. Most of us are aware that dogs do this when they are hot. Many dogs will also pant when they are in pain or when they are stressed. Another reason for excessive panting and sometimes coughing is lack of appropriate oxygenation.

Any potential breathing problem is considered an emergency. The best advice for any dog who is excessively panting, coughing and not able to settle is to seek emergency vet care.

#5. Injury

If your pet has suddenly been injured, there can be some question as to whether they need a vet straight away or not. It normally depends on the nature of the injury. If your dog is displaying signs of a sore leg, nail or toe and can be effectively kept calm and rested until your vet is open then it may be okay to wait.

As a general rule, if the dog is likely to be very painful post injury or if the dog is actively bleeding, then emergency veterinary attention should be sought. Even if it is only for a pain relief injection. The simplest and kindest thing we can do for an injured dog is to control their pain.

Emergency vet attention is needed when:

✔️ Trauma has occurred, for example: hit by car, falling from a height, dog fight, etc. In regards to trauma, more often than not, emergency vet care is needed.

✔️ There is a wound that is actively bleeding. Some small wounds may be able to be effectively covered to wait for vet care. Any bleeding that is difficult to control or unable to be controlled needs emergency vet care.

#6. Collapse

There are quite a few calls in the middle of the night at veterinary hospitals that report a dog who has collapsed (suddenly unable to walk or stand). There are many reasons as to why collapse can occur. As a general rule, any dog who has suddenly collapsed should be seen by a vet as soon as possible, so please seek emergency care in this situation.

#7. Snake Bite

If you think your pet has been bitten by a snake, always seek emergency veterinary attention.

#8. Whelping

The majority of dogs will be able to give birth without our assistance. In saying that, caesarean is one of the most common emergency surgeries we do in a vet hospital. So, how do you know if your dog's labour is becoming abnormal?

Seek emergency vet care when:

✔️ You can see the dog pushing and contracting but there are no pups born within 30 to 60 minutes

✔️ It has been 2 to 4 hours between pups and the mother is exhausted or is still pushing and contracting without results

✔️ There is a significant amount of green discharge

✔️ You think a pup is stuck in the birth canal

It helps to have a prenatal x-ray done before your dog is due to give birth. This way you can be given an estimated number of pups to expect. You will need to be more vigilant if you have a dog who is likely to have problems due to their breed or has a history of previous birthing issues.

#9. Toxin or Foreign Body Ingestion

Dogs tend to eat things they shouldn't. If you suspect your dog has eaten any sort of drug, plant, fungus, bone, material, human food, garbage, poison, bait or any other unusual objects, call your vet immediately. If you can, have as much of the following information ready as you can. This will help them to decide whether it's an emergency or not:
  • What did they eat?
  • How much did they potentially have?
  • How long ago did they eat it?

Top Tips for Emergency Situations

  • Applying a bandage at home:
When temporarily covering a wound, make sure your bandage isn't too tight. You can do more damage if you happen to cut off circulation. Ensure your dog does not eat the bandage material as this, in itself, can be a problem.
  • Avoid medicating without vet advice:
All too often we see pet parents trying to help their dog by giving them a medication they had at home. Most human medications are inappropriate for dogs and some can cause harm. Do not give any medication until a vet directs you to do so.
  • Take care with distressed pets:
Any dog that is in pain, has an altered demeanour or has had a neurological episode may not be themselves. Even the gentlest of dogs have the potential to bite in these situations.
  • Lifting large dogs:
A large, collapsed dog is not the easiest thing to move. The best way to carry a dog in this situation is to spread out a large, strong blanket or towel next to them. Roll or slide them onto the blanket then have two to four people lift at each corner of the blanket.
  • Tight finances:
Vet clinics understand that lots of money is not something that everyone has. Please keep in mind that all vets have a 'duty of care'. What this means is that they will provide pain relief and first aid to any animal that needs it, even if the owners cannot pay at the time. 

This does not mean they have to treat your dog for free. It ensures that any sick or injured animal can receive enough care to prevent them from suffering without immediate payment.
  • Sick or injured animal that is not yours:
If you hit an animal with your car or find one that is sick or injured. Please make sure it gets to a vet. You won't be charged, you don't even have to leave your details if you choose not to.

written by Leah Eichner, Veterinary Nurse and Freelance Writer, November 2021 for Australian Dog Lover

About the writer

Leah Eichner is a veterinary nurse with over 15 years of experience. She has worked in general practice, specialist dermatology and in emergency and critical care

She has an interest in Australian wildlife that took her on a field trip to Lady Julia Percy Island to study Australian Fur Seals with Melbourne Zoo.

She married Ben in 2009. In 2016, Ben and Leah's love for camping became their lives when they packed up their camper trailer and Toyota Prado, and their two dogs, Brock and Chev and went on an 11-month adventure up and down the East Coast of Australia. 


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