Pet Emergencies: When to Take Action

Mar 7, 2022

Pet Emergencies: When to take action

As pet-people, we hate to see our animal companions suffer. It’s essential to be educated about what constitutes a pet emergency, and what to do about it. Here are a few guidelines to help you make informed decisions.

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How do I know if my pet is experiencing an emergency?

Many pet owners are unsure about when to seek emergency pet care. A true emergency is a condition which poses grave danger to your pet’s survival, here and now. To be more direct, an emergency is a potentially fatal condition which could result in your pet’s imminent death without medical intervention. Accidents or conditions which may result in permanent damage (like blindness) are also considered emergencies, but may not be life-threatening.

Some of the more common and serious conditions that could be life-threatening and lead to emergency room visits include, but are not limited to:

  • Acute Vomiting and/or Diarrhea
  • Ingestion of a Toxic Substance
  • Traumatic Injuries Such as Being Hit by a Car
  • Urinary Tract Obstruction
  • Eye Injuries
  • Lacerations or Bite Wounds
  • Difficulty Breathing
  • Ingested Foreign Objects

Common pet emergencies that usually require immediate treatment

Traumatic pet injuries

Blunt force trauma: Being hit by a car or heavy falling object is a scenario requiring immediate examination by a vet even if there is no visible bleeding. For example, a kitten may be bounced from the tire of a moving car, without apparent damage. Only an X-ray will reveal a broken bone or other less obvious life-threatening damage such as internal bleeding, which may not be immediately evident.

Penetrative trauma: Other forms of trauma do cause bleeding– such as a bite or scratch from another animal. Injuries from other animals are especially urgent because bites in particular can transmit bacteria which can lead to dangerous abscesses and infections. Pets may also be victims of gunshots, oftentimes with buckshot and BB pellets. All penetrative wounds are highly prone to infection if left untreated.

Other dangers that may require immediate care include a tangle with a swarm of hornets or bees, getting stuck in barbed wire or a leg-hold trap, or bites and stings from other animals like snakes, scorpions, coyotes, and porcupines, to name a few.

Eye-trauma: Trauma to the eyes, though not necessarily life-threatening, is considered an emergency situation because eye-trauma can lead to immediate blindness. Examples of eye-trauma include chemicals being splashed into your pet’s eyes, or being pierced by a thorn, stick or other object.

Burns can happen as the result of contact with open flame, or from chewing an electrical cord, or from contact with caustic chemicals. If your pet experiences a burn, contact Airvet immediately to decide on next steps.

Conditions requiring immediate care

Below are a few other situations requiring immediate consultation with a veterinary professional:


If your dog or cat has collapsed, the situation requires immediate attention. Healthy animals do not fall, lose their balance or collapse. Possible causes include ear infections, hemorrhaging, brain or nerve disease, or toxicity (poisoning). A dramatic loss of strength is abnormal and warrants immediate emergency attention.

Trouble breathing

Your pet’s breathing should be steady and easy, even after normal exertion like a good play session. Labored panting, gasping, choking, wheezing, raspy or shallow breathing, gagging and coughing may be caused by something stuck in the throat, asthma , or disorders of the heart or lungs. All are signs of distress requiring immediate consultation with a veterinary professional. In cats specifically, open-mouth breathing can be a sign of danger since cats do not breathe with their mouths open.


Uncontrollable shaking, tremors, loss of consciousness, paddling motions with the legs, and loss of bladder and bowel control are common signs of pet seizure or convulsion. If your pet has been treated for epilepsy, not every seizure is an emergency. However, multiple seizures within a 24-hour period, or longer seizures lasting more than a few minutes warrant prompt care. If this is your pet’s first seizure, you may not recognize it as such. Immediate consultation with a veterinarian would be prudent if you don’t know your pet’s status regarding a diagnosis of epilepsy.

Gastric Dilatation Volvulus (Gdv) or “Bloat”

Gastric dilatation volvulus (GDV), more casually called bloat, is a serious and sometimes fatal condition in dogs, especially in large, deep-chested breeds including Great Danes and German Shepherds. This is the condition where the dog’s stomach twists, causing intense pain. A distended abdomen, often after a big meal, is a visible warning sign. If your dog drools and pants, and tries to vomit “unproductively” – meaning that the contents of the stomach are not produced – seek immediate care.

Acute vomiting or diarrhea

Sudden, intense and extreme vomiting or diarrhea, often a signal of a higher risk situation, versus chronic vomiting or diarrhea, which is ongoing and may be more easily tolerated. If your dog or cat is experiencing new and unusual vomiting or diarrhea, or strains to defecate, contact your vet. Dogs and cats can vomit rather easily, sometimes from something as simple as a new brand of food, or a sudden moment of stress or excitement. But sometimes vomiting and/or diarrhea can be a sign of a severe health issue if left unchecked.

A general rule of thumb: if you ever observe what looks like coffee grounds or other dark brown-to-black substances in your pet’s stool or vomit, it may be dried blood and is indicative of internal distress. If you observe red blood coming from any of your pet’s body openings, or if your pet’s saliva urine or feces visibly contain blood, immediately see a vet for care.

If you’re an Airvet member contact us immediately and discuss your pet’s condition.

Ingestion of a toxic substance

IMPORTANT: Never try to induce vomiting if your pet is unconscious, weak, suffers from a history of seizures or has a heart condition.

Lock up dangerous household items: First, remember that many emergencies can be prevented. Lock away antifreeze, household bleach, detergent, paint, and common human medications like ibuprofen and antihistamines. Also remember that many of our favorite foods are poisonous to pets (chocolate, grapes, anything containing the sweetener xylitol).

Also be careful not to leave potentially dangerous items around. Cats love to chew on the tips of shoelaces and play with yarn, thread, string, and rubber bands. Swallowing these seemingly harmless items can actually be fatal. Do not induce your cat to vomit. If your cat swallows a needle and thread, for example, making the cat vomit or swallow could prove fatal, as the needle could become hooked in the throat or pierce internal organs.

Secondary rat poisoning: Unfortunately many people use poison to kill rats and mice, and our pets often consume these powerful and deadly chemicals called metal phosphides, by way of chewing or ingesting a poisoned rodent. To prevent this requires vigilance: always be aware of what your pet is hunting and sniffing.

Caustic chemicals kill: The same applies if you think your pet may have swallowed bleach or other caustic chemicals– these will burn into sensitive tissue and cause more corrosive damage to the throat or possibly lungs if vomited up.

Diagnosing & treatment of toxic items or substances: If you think your pet has swallowed a dangerous item or substance, seek veterinary care. A veterinary professional may x-ray your pet, administer vomit-inducing medication, analyze the contents of the vomit, test for other issues, and prescribe medication as needed.

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Urinary tract obstruction

Difficult urination generally signals a blockage such as a kidney stone, or an infection of the bladder, kidneys or urethra. Infection may cause inflammation that causes the sensitive urethral passage to swell, making it difficult for urine to pass, and creating a sense of false urgency, or the feeling of needing to urinate but being unable to do so.

Lacerations or bite wounds

The sight of blood can be terrifying. It signals damage, and our first instinct is to clean the wound and stop the bleeding. External bleeding indicates damage to the skin and possibly underlying tissue, and this rupture makes it possible for harmful bacteria to enter the body and do even more damage. If the site of the bleeding is very small (no larger than the eraser on the end of a pencil), and the wound closes easily and cleanly, your pet may not be in immediate danger. However, most wounds warrant a vet visit, since breaking the skin barrier allows pathogens to enter.

Not sure if your pet is experiencing an emergency?

Other instances are not as clear. When in doubt, contact Airvet for an immediate consultation with a licensed veterinarian. Some of the following situations can be emergencies while others may dictate a “wait-and-see” approach.

Unusual behavior or new physical symptoms

If your pet experiences new and unusual behavioral or physical symptoms, a video call with a vet on Airvet can quickly determine whether your pet is experiencing an emergency or not, and give guidance on first aid and any recommendations for treatment at home, at your vet or at an emergency clinic.

Red/watery eyes

If your dog or cat has red or watery eyes, it could be a corneal scratch, a mild irritant or allergies. Or it could be a sign of something more serious, like a pathogen entering the conjunctiva.


New and frequent sneezing can be a cause for concern. Your pet may have allergies, or may be trying to eliminate a microbe. Observe what comes out of your pet’s nose: healthy nasal excretions are clear, thin and runny. Chunky white, yellow or green mucus can indicate bacterial activity. If acute sneezing persists, contact Airvet to ensure your pet doesn’t have a virus that could lead to a worsening condition.