Common emergencies in puppies

Some forms of common puppy illness should be considered an emergency and should be treated by a vet as soon as possible. Puppies can have many of the health conditions of adult dogs but there are a number of conditions that are more common and serious in puppies. If you suspect your puppy is showing signs of any of the following common puppy emergencies contact your vet, or out of hours, your nearest Vets Now for advice.

Two golden haired puppies lying sitting together on grass

1. Vomiting/diarrhoea

This is the most common reason that puppies are seen in an emergency. Vomiting and diarrhoea are very common in newly rehomed puppies for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to: stress of rehoming, parasites (including worms and amoebae), bacterial infections, viral infections (including the deadly parvovirus), dietary indiscretion and/or rapid changes in diet, vitamin deficiencies, toxins and congenital problems.

Small bouts of watery diarrhoea or a small amount of regurgitated food can often be treated at home by feeding a bland diet little and often, withholding all rich treats and titbits. Tepid water can be offered but should not be gulped. Puppies with vomiting and diarrhoea should still appear bright and normal at home. As puppies are a lot quicker to show dehydration than adult dogs, it is always much safer to get them checked by a veterinary surgeon if there are any concerns.

Puppies with vomiting and diarrhoea should be seen by a vet if any of the following apply:

  • They are lethargic, not acting normally or not wanting to play
  • The abdomen seems bloated or painful
  • There is a large amount of fluid being lost through vomiting or diarrhoea
  • There is blood in the vomiting or diarrhoea
  • The vomiting or diarrhoea has not responded to a bland diet
  • They have not yet received a full course of vaccinations
  • They are receiving medication for a different reason
  • There is a suspicion of an infectious cause (more than one dog is affected, or a member of the family is also displaying symptoms)

2. Foreign material ingestion

Puppies explore the world with their mouths – licking, mouthing and chewing virtually everything they encounter, and this behaviour can lead to a lot of trouble! Chewing electric cables can be life-threatening if they chew through the plastic and get electric shock. Any animal receiving an electric shock should be brought to the vet as soon as it is safe for them to be moved.

Poisons, toxins and drugs can all be more dangerous if ingested by a puppy as their liver and kidneys have not fully matured. Particular ‘favourites’ include slug pellets, anti-freeze, chocolate, raisins, human medications (e.g. painkillers) and other pets’ medication. Please contact your veterinary surgeon for advice immediately upon ingestion as prompt action may be required to prevent long term health problems.

‘Foreign bodies’, or non-food materials getting stuck in the gastrointestinal tract, are more common in puppies. Symptoms often include vomiting, diarrhoea, lethargy and abdominal pain. Hard objects such as pieces of bone or stones may be possible to be felt in the intestines by a vet, but objects in the stomach or soft objects such as socks may require an x-ray or an ultrasound to diagnose. While some objects may pass through, surgery is often required to remove the ‘snack’.

3. Other gastrointestinal problems

As their immune system isn’t fully developed, puppies require more frequent doses of wormer than adult dogs as they need to get rid of worms acquired while in the mother’s womb and through the milk. Large numbers of worms can cause intestinal problems including vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain and weight loss. Worms are extremely common in puppies and a vet will be able to recommend wormers suitable for puppies.

Intussusception is a term meaning that a portion of the intestines has slid into an adjacent section and got stuck, much like sections of a telescope slide into each other. It is often very painful and may present as severe abdominal pain and collapse, along with vomiting and diarrhoea. Puppies suspected of having this condition should be seen immediately by a vet.

A puppy lying head down on some grass

4. Trauma

Due to their size, puppies are a lot more prone to being stepped on or squashed beneath falling objects, and are more likely to be seriously injured. We would always recommend that a puppy showing any signs of pain, breathing difficulties or behavioural changes after a traumatic incident should be seen by a vet.

5. Hypoglycaemia of toy breeds

Very small breeds, such as Chihuahuas and Miniature Yorkshire Terriers, have extremely tiny stomachs and when young cannot cope long intervals between meals. Low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) can be life-threatening and manifests as lethargy, weakness and wobbliness (ataxia) with a ‘spaced out’ demeanour or a glassy eyed appearance. In severe cases this can progress to collapse, coma, seizures and even death. Small puppies should be fed at least every 4 hours, and if displaying the above symptoms, should be given a small amount of honey or powdered sugar straight into the mouth before being taken to a vet for assessment.

This can also be seen in all puppies with severe vomiting and diarrhoea, very young puppies of all ages, or very cold puppies.

6. Respiratory problems

While not common, respiratory problems can deteriorate much more quickly in puppies than in adult dogs. Dogs that are panting should have normal small amounts of chest motion if their mouths are gently held closed to stop the panting – big gasping chest movements are a sign for concern. Any puppy struggling to breathe despite being at rest should be immediately assessed by a veterinary surgeon. Similarly, any puppy that has started coughing, wheezing or making abnormal breathing noises should be seen straight away.

7. Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis (an allergic reaction) is very rare but can be life threatening if it occurs. The two main causes in puppies involve insect stings/allergic reactions, and vaccine/medication reactions.

For insect stings, swelling around the head/neck area should always be checked by a veterinary surgeon, as should any sting causing lameness or pain in the area.

Medication reactions, including vaccine reactions, are generally limited to lethargy and mild itchiness/tenderness at the vaccine site for 24 hours. True life-threatening reactions are extremely rare but it is important to know what signs to look for. A sudden drop in blood pressure leads to weakness and collapse and coma, often with profuse vomiting; seizures and a lack of responsiveness can also be seen. Any puppy failing to respond to sound or touch, or showing tremors/seizure-like activity should be taken immediately to see a vet.