What are the most common small animal emergencies?

It can be difficult to know when your pet’s health problem is life-threatening and needs emergency treatment. If you are in any doubt, always contact your vet for further advice. We would much rather you rang for advice than sat at home worrying about your pet.

Here we reveal 13 of the most common emergencies we see at Vets Now.

1. Vomiting and/or diarrhoea

Vomiting and diarrhoea are common problems in dogs and while they can be signs of a serious illness, the majority of cases are simple stomach upsets that typically resolve within 24 hours. If your dog develops any other signs such as lethargy or weakness, seems to be in pain, or the vomiting or diarrhoea contains blood or persists for more than 24 hours then call your vet immediately. If your dog has a chronic medical problem such as diabetes and starts vomiting we would not recommend waiting for 24 hours — seek veterinary attention as soon as possible.

We also occasionally see vomiting and diarrhoea in cats. If your cat vomits more than once, cannot keep water down, you see blood or unusual material in the vomit or diarrhoea, or if you have seen him eat something he shouldn’t, call your vet immediately.


2. Trauma

Trauma cases we see include road traffic accidents, falls, bites and gunshot wounds. Sometimes it can be difficult to assess the severity of internal trauma so we would recommend your pet is seen as soon as possible following trauma even if they appear fine. Some injuries, such as a ruptured lung or internal bleeding can take some time to show signs. Wounds can be deeper than they appear and complications such as infection can develop if veterinary treatment is delayed. Most of these sorts of trauma cause some degree of pain to your pet and so they will often benefit from and require your vet to give a painkilling injection. First aid care for minor injuries on limbs or paws 


3. Collapse

Collapse describes a loss of strength causing your pet to fall and/or be unable to rise. Possible causes of collapse include heart disease, vascular (vein and artery) disease, haemorrhage (internal or external bleeding), anaemia, respiratory (lung) disease, neurological (brain or nerve) disease, musculoskeletal (muscle, ligament, tendon, bone) disease, toxicity and some drugs and medications. If your pet suffers any form of collapse seek immediate veterinary attention as there could be a life-threatening cause.


4. Breathing difficulties

You may notice wheezing, choking, weak and raspy breathing, shallow breathing or coughing. In cats, open-mouth breathing is also a concern. Breathing difficulties can result from foreign bodies in the throat, allergic reactions, asthma, heart disease or lung disease. Breathing problems are serious and potentially life-threatening so get your pet seen as soon as possible. Find out more about breathing difficulties in cats or dogs


5. Straining to urinate/cystitis

If you notice your dog or cat is not producing any urine, is urinating – or straining to urinate frequently, is having difficulty passing urine or you notice blood in the urine, go to see your vet as soon as possible. It may be a sign that your pet has a life-threatening blockage (this is more common in males than females).


6. Poisoning/indiscrete ingestion

If you’re concerned your dog or cat has eaten something they shouldn’t have, call your vet immediately. The most common poisonings we see are chocolate, grapes/raisins, human medications, lilies, rat poisons and slug poisons. Some of these poisonings can be successfully treated if seen immediately but can turn into life-threatening situations once your pet starts to digest and absorb the poisons in their digestive system. Find out more about common poisons and how to identify a poisoning.

7. Bloat or gastric dilatation volvulus (GDV)

GDV is where the stomach becomes twisted, it is probably the most serious non-traumatic emergency for any dog. The early signs may just be that a dog appears restless after a large meal and tries to be sick. As GDV develops your dog’s abdomen will become distended or bloated, your dog will show signs of discomfort or pain and will continue to try and be sick. In most cases, all they will manage to bring up is white froth. They may drool excessively and you may notice an increase in breathing rate and heart rate. GDV is most commonly seen in large, deep chested breeds such as Great Danes, or German Shepherds.

If you suspect your dog has a GDV it is imperative you seek immediate veterinary treatment. Success rates decrease the longer the delay in starting treatment. Find out more about GDV in dogs.


8. Whelping/kittening issues

Dog Whelping Emergencies – when to contact your vet:

  • your dog goes into labour and you notice that more than two hours has passed without any puppies being born.
  • she has a green discharge from the vagina without puppies having been born.
  • it is more than two hours between puppies
  • if she is continually straining for a few minutes with a puppy or fluid filled bubble stuck in the birth canal.
  • your dog has intense contractions/straining for more than 20 minutes without a puppy being delivered
  • if your dog is depressed, lethargic or her body temperature is more than 39.4°C (103°F).
  • if she is bleeding from the vagina for more than ten minutes.

Cat Kittening Emergencies – when to contact your vet:

  • Your cat has twenty minutes of intense labour and does not produce a kitten.
  • It is more than two hours between kittens
  • Ten minutes of intense labour does not expel a kitten seen at the queen’s vulva.
  • If gentle traction on the trapped foetus causes the queen pain.
  • Your cat is depressed, lethargic or has a fever (rectal temperature >39.4°C, >103°F).
  • There is fresh blood loss from her vulva for more than ten minutes.


9. Seizures

Signs associated with a seizure (or fit) include uncontrollable shaking and tremors, loss of consciousness, paddling with the legs and possible loss of bowel or urinary control. The most common cause of seizures in dogs and cats is epilepsy. If your pet is diagnosed as epileptic not every seizure will constitute an emergency. If your pet has multiple seizures within a 24-hour period or if a seizure lasts longer than a couple minutes then your epileptic pet may need to be seen by your vet. If this is your pet’s first seizure we recommend you phone your vet for advice and to book an appointment for a check up. More information about seizures in dogs.

10. Neurological (nerve or brain) problems

Neurological problems can manifest in your dog as disorientation, incoordination, walking
in circles, severe lethargy, unresponsiveness, and coma. A normal healthy dog is bright, alert and responsive; any pronounced change in your dog’s mental status requires immediate veterinary attention. Lethargy and weakness can be seen with any serious illness and should never be ignored. Sometimes neurological disorders do not affect mentation (for instance loss of use of the hind limbs can sometimes be cause by a ruptured intervertebral disc). Again these are serious disorders that need prompt veterinary attention to achieve the most favourable outcome.

Vestibular syndrome, or geriatric vestibular disease, is often incorrectly referred to as a ‘stroke’ and is commonly seen in older dogs. The characteristic signs are loss of balance, leaning to one side, head tilt and rapid left-to-right eye movements (nystagmus). Sometimes the loss of balance is so severe that the dog rolls over repeatedly.


11. Eclampsia

Eclampsia (milk fever, puerperal tetany or hypocalcaemia) is a condition that most commonly affects nursing mothers but can also occur during late pregnancy. Signs are seen when the calcium levels in the blood drop too low. Signs can be vague to start with but they include restlessness, panting, increased salivation and stiffness when moving. This can progress quickly to muscle twitching, fever and death, so contact your vet immediately if you notice any of these signs.


12. Eye problems

Eye (ocular) problems can deteriorate quickly and if left untreated can result in blindness or loss of the eye. Signs of ocular disease include redness of the eye, discharge, excessive tearing, swelling, squinting or a closed eye and constant pawing at the eye. Even if it is just a foreign body in the eye or a superficial scratch on the cornea prompt veterinary treatment can prevent a minor problem from becoming a serious one.


13. Stings/bites/allergic reactions

These are most commonly seen in the summer months but can occur at any time of year. Typical signs are swelling around the face, or hives, most easily seen on the belly. These can be quite itchy for your pet. Rarely, severe allergic reactions can lead to breathing difficulty due to swelling of the airways. Other signs of a severe reaction include extensive swelling throughout the body, diarrhoea and shock. Severe reactions are more likely to be seen following multiple stings. If your pet is showing signs of discomfort or distress, contact your vet.