Recognizing When Your Dog Needs Veterinary Help NOW!!!

By Cindy Mendonca

Veterinary professionals are taught that an emergency is anything that an owner thinks is an emergency. However, there are emergency situations and health concerns that need immediate care — other than the obvious physical injuries — that owners are either unsure of or simply do not recognize. At my animal emergency clinic, we Veterinary professionals are taught that an emergency is anything that an owner thinks is an emergency. However, there are emergency situations and health concerns that need immediate care — other than the obvious physical injuries — that owners are either unsure of or simply do not recognize. At my animal emergency clinic, we occasionally receive calls from people who want a telephone diagnosis and don’t understand why we cannot always do that. Many symptoms are common to a lot of diseases. Some of the diseases are life-threatening; some are not. Without seeing the animal, possibly without running various diagnostic tests, we can’t get to the cause in order to know the best treatment. In some cases, too, we need to stabilize the dog while searching for those answers.

If we need to do these things to tell what’s wrong, how does the average dog owner determine when they need to call the vet, especially in a non-injury situation? The short answer is that owners generally know when something isn’t normal, even when there aren’t any real outward signs. (The vet term for this latter situation is ADR or “ain’t doing right”). But there are also more tangible symptoms. This article isn’t intended to discuss the obvious emergency situation such as being hit by a car or the “how-to” of treatments. Instead I’ll point out some symptoms (it’s virtually impossible to point out all symptoms possible) and what some of the causes and owner responses might be. This information comes from a variety of classes and discussions as well as two very good books (Emergency First Aid for Your Dog, Tamara Shearer, DVM, 1996 and Veterinary Emergency Medicine Secrets, Wayne E. Winfield, DVM, 2001).


Breathing Difficulties: Need immediate veterinary contact. Can be symptomatic of heart or lung disease, heat stroke, internal bleeding, shock/trauma, anemia, fractured ribs, poisoning, and asthma.

Choking: Contact the vet as soon as possible, the sooner the better. Can be caused by a foreign body, aspiration of fluid (fluid “down the wrong pipe”), and nausea. This can be especially serious if it causes the dog to become unconscious and to stop breathing. It can also require sedation to safely remove a foreign object. Even if the foreign object is removed at home, the dog should be seen to evaluate the trauma to the esophagus or trachea.

Collapse: Needs immediate veterinary care as causes may include anemia, bloat, diabetes, heart disease, heat stroke, hypothermia, infections, internal bleeding, lung disease, poisonings, seizures, shock/trauma, and urinary blockage.

Coughing: If it persists, see a veterinarian as soon as possible. Tell the vet whether the cough is dry or productive (wet, mucousy). If the coughing leads to breathing difficulties, get to the vet immediately. Coughing may be a symptom of heart disease, lung disease, infections, bronchitis, tonsillitis, asthma, obstruction for a foreign object, and smoke inhalation or it might be the relatively benign kennel cough (which is contagious to other dogs).

Diarrhea and vomiting are often linked. The most benign causes are changes in diet. These can usually be treated at home, although care must be taken when using human medicines. Some can be lethal to pets. Check with your vet before doing anything other than withholding food and water. Even there, it’s a good idea to check with the vet because puppies and aged/debilitated dogs shouldn’t go for very long without food and water. One needs to also make sure that the vomiting and/or diarrhea doesn’t cause dehydration, because dehydration can cause damage to organs. (One test of dehydration is to pinch the skin. If it stays “tented,” the animal is dehydrated). If the reason is unknown, blood is present, the animal is unable to keep down water, or the animal has a known disease, contact the vet immediately. Other possible causes include heat stroke, shock/trauma, infections, poisonings, parasites, cancer, dietary indiscretions (raiding the garbage or eating too much fat can lead to pancreatitis among other things), foreign objects, and organ failure.

Drooling, uncontrollable: Contact the vet immediately. Causes include nausea, gum irritation, diseased teeth, foreign body in mouth, chemical or plant exposure/poisoning, and contagious disease.

Eyes (runny, sore): Eye problems can rapidly become serious, so seek a vet’s care quickly. Do not apply human medications to a dog’s eyes without instruction by a vet. Some causes include corneal scratches, glaucoma, contusions, infections, corneal ulcers, foreign debris, and allergies.

Head Tilt: Contact the vet as soon as possible. This is indicative of inner ear infections and swelling, trauma, cancers/tumors, neurological problems, or foreign bodies in the ear.

Lameness: Contact a vet as soon as possible. Can be caused by fractures, sprains, torn ligaments and dislocations, bite wounds, bruises, foot-pad injuries, torn toenail, and back or neck injury.

Loss of coordination/balance: Contact a vet as soon as possible. Causes are the same as the head tilt, but may also be indicative of poisoning or extreme illness.

Protruding Rectum: Contact a vet immediately. This could be caused by diarrhea, straining, colitis, or a foreign body and there is danger that the protruding tissue could die.

Scratching Skin/Irritated Skin: Depending on the cause, it may need immediate attention from a vet. Causes include contact with plant resins, frostbite, burns, abrasions, bites and stings, allergies, external parasites, drug reactions.

Seizures: Call your vet immediately. The actual cause (there are more than
50 possible causes documented and who knows how many that are still unknown)
may never be found, but the symptoms must be treated.

Shaking Head/Scratching Ears: Contact your vet as soon as possible. This is a symptom of ear infection, ear mites, trauma, bite wounds, ear hematoma (swelling), and toad poisoning.

Straining: Consult a vet as soon as possible, except in the case little or no urine being produced. Little or no urine is indicative of a urinary blockage and is life-threatening. In this case, see the vet immediately. Other causes include urinary tract irritation/infection, constipation, colitis, or a difficult delivery.

Weakness/Depression: Call your vet immediately. These are usually vague symptoms associated with that “ain’t doing right” syndrome, but can be associated with many diseases and conditions. They are often the early symptoms of illnesses such as heart and lung disease, heat stroke, internal bleeding, shock, trauma, anemia, fracture ribs, poisoning, asthma, dehydration, diabetes, and liver or kidney disease.

Wetting in the House: Could be a symptom of a urinary tract infection or a blockage. If little output is seen, call the vet immediately. Even if urine is being produced, call a vet as soon as possible to avoid further problems and to make the dog more comfortable.

What can a pet owner do to be prepared? First, have access to vet care 24 hours a day. Post the telephone number(s) in a prominent place near your phone. Know how to get to the emergency clinic. Make sure your family members and pet sitters have the information. Call the clinic first, if possible, so they know to expect you. Stay calm and use common sense. It won’t help if you hurt yourself trying to pick up an animal alone or are bitten by an dog in pain. If you have time and if the situation isn’t too serious, you can check the dog’s temperature, pulse, and respiration. Normal temperature for a dog ranges from about 100 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit, normal heart rate is 90 to 130 beats per minute (can be slower in a fit dog, so check for baseline values when your dog is feeling well and has been resting), and the normal respiration is 20-24 breaths per minute. Observe the dog so you can report the symptoms and answer your vet’s questions. Some of these questions may include the following: Where is the major problem located? (e.g. mouth, eyes, necks, chest, abdomen, back, urinary tract, GI tract, legs, skin, nervous system). What kind of symptoms or problems are present and how long have they been present? Are the symptoms becoming better, worse, or staying the same? Have these problems occurred before? How is the dog behaving? (e.g., depressed, disoriented, in pain, incoherent, excitable)

The bottom line when it comes to seeking veterinary care rests with you, the owner. Only you can see the animal at the time. If you are at all uncertain, then the dog should be seen. It’s important to remember that your only financial obligation to the veterinarian when you arrive is to pay the initial examination fee, so don’t let the fear of expense stop you from taking the first step. At that time, the vet should give an estimate of the diagnostic tests, treatments, and fees expected for those services. You have the right to ask that the estimate be given in writing and to refuse any treatment or diagnostics. In the long run, the examination fee is a pretty inexpensive price to put on your dog’s health and your own peace of mind.

Here’s to good health!