Have you experienced that anxious moment when you know something is wrong with your pet and you have to decide what to do? Maybe your dog is vomiting? Or your cat has diarrhea? Or perhaps your pet is limping, has collapsed, or is crying out?
None of us want our pets to suffer, and when such things occur, one of the most stressful aspects can be knowing what to do.
Is it an Emergency?
First, it’s important to recognize the signs of a true emergency so you can seek immediate veterinary care, if needed. It’s important to know if your veterinarian treats emergency cases, and to have a list of nearby emergency veterinary clinics before you need one. Many clinics will discuss a situation by phone to help determine whether it may be an emergency, and some will even provide home care recommendations if your pet has been seen at there in the past year. You can also increase the chances of your pet surviving an emergency by taking a pet CPR or first aid class.
Some situations that call for immediate veterinary care include when your pet:
- has collapsed or is unresponsive
- has ingested toxins or an object that could cause blockage
- has severe bleeding
- is choking or cannot breathe
- has injured an eye
- has severe vomiting or diarrhea or occurrences more than twice in 24 hours
- has broken bones or a leg at a strange angle
- is having seizures or other neurological symptoms
- is a cat who is straining to urinate or not eating for over 24 hours
If symptoms don’t appear severe, it can be difficult to know when to go to the vet. In these cases, remember animals – especially cats – are masters at hiding illness. This is because showing signs of sickness in the wild makes them vulnerable to predators.
Check Vital Signs
A basic assessment of the following vitals is an important step in determining whether immediate vet care is needed. If any of the following vitals are abnormal, s/he should be seen right away.
- Hydration Your pet’s gums are a good indicator of hydration. Dr. Heather Dillon of At Home Veterinary Services – a Spot Top Dog winning veterinary practice that treats pets in their homes – says, “A healthy animal should have moist, coral-pink gums. When you gently press on the gums the color should turn from white back to the normal pink color in about two seconds. If the gums look pale, blue, are tacky (dry), or if it takes a prolonged time for color to return after pressing on the tissue, then you should have your pet seen.” With a well-hydrated pet, the skin on the scruff of the neck should move easily back into place if you pull on it gently. Here too, if it takes more than two seconds to move back into place, your pet is likely dehydrated.
- Temperature Gently insert a lubricated digital thermometer into your pet’s rectum, and follow the instructions on the thermometer to get a reading. The thermometer should be inserted around one to three inches, depending on the size of the animal, and should never be forced in. A normal temperature for a cat or dog generally ranges between 100 and 102.5 F.
- Respiration Rate. To measure respiration, simply count your pet’s breaths for one minute. A respiration rate of a healthy, comfortable cat is usually 20 to 30 breaths per minute; a dog’s is a broader range of 15 to 30.
- Heart Rate. For cats, heart rate is usually measured by resting the hand on the cat’s side, behind its left front leg. For dogs, the femoral artery on the inside of the back leg is usually easiest for measuring heart rate. The normal range for a pet’s heart rate is quite wide, and can vary depending on the stress level and size of the animal. A dog’s heart rate is usually between 100-150 beats per minute; a cat’s is generally 140-220. Both heart and respiration rates are best measured when your pet is relaxed, if possible.
- Age. When a very young or older pet shows signs of a medical concern, s/he should be seen by a vet.
- The number of symptoms. If multiple symptoms are apparent, the situation is more serious. For example, a vomiting, lethargic dog is more likely to have a serious condition than one who is only vomiting.
- Environmental exposure. Consider what your pet may have been exposed to. Is it possible that s/he ingested a bottle of pills or something toxic in the yard? Dogs will often eat clothing or toys, and cats often eat string or yarn; both necessitate an immediate veterinary visit. For a full list of substances that are toxic to pets, visit the ASPCA Poison Control website.
Symptoms are not the disease, but rather clues you can use – in conjunction with diagnostics like an exam, lab work, radiographs, ultrasound, and sometimes even surgery – to determine the underlying condition.
Vomiting and Diarrhea
Most pets occasionally vomit or get diarrhea. If either is occurring and is intense, or lasts longer than 24 hours, veterinary care is needed. When vomiting or diarrhea start, withhold food to give the stomach a rest. Dr. Dillon advises offering small amounts of water, but if your pet vomits the water, consult your vet.
If vomiting or diarrhea stops for 6-8 hours, offer your pet small amounts of bland food, like boiled chicken, turkey or rice. If your pet continues to do well, gradually transition back to a normal diet over several days. If vomiting and diarrhea resume after reintroducing food, it is time to see the vet. Chronic (repeatedly occurring) vomiting or diarrhea calls for a visit to the veterinarian.
Dr. Dillon warns that cats should not fast as long as dogs. “Any time food is withheld from a cat it should be done under the advice of a veterinarian because of the potential for hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver syndrome).” It is important not to give your pet any medication without consulting your veterinarian.
Possible causes of vomiting and diarrhea include: recent change in diet, dietary indiscretion (eating unusual or unnatural items), parasites, viruses, gastritis and gastroenteritis, pancreatitis, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, or bloat.
Limping can be caused by a wide variety of conditions – some easily resolved, while others are more serious. According to Dr. Lillian Su at Sunstone Veterinary Specialists, most pets who limp are experiencing pain, and the most common causes of limping are musculoskeletal or neurological pain.
If your pet is able to put weight on the leg and is not experiencing other symptoms, the limping may be caused by a strain that could heal by applying a cold pack, and limiting his or her activity to short bathroom walks for several days.
With limping, a veterinary appointment is urgent if any of these is true:
- there is a broken bone or wound
- the pet cannot put weight on the leg
- the leg is at a strange angle, is swollen, or has obvious instability
- the limping appears to originate from the back instead of the leg
- For cats, paralysis of one or both rear legs can indicate a dislodged blood clot. If your cat has limited use of ANY leg, the foot feels cold, or the cat is vocalizing loudly, it is a medical emergency.
Do not give your pet pain medication unless prescribed by your veterinarian. “While it is natural to want to give your pet something to help with their pain, many over the counter anti-inflammatories and pain medications are harmful to pets,” Dr. Su says.
Possible causes of limping include: broken or fractured bone, ligament injury, developmental orthopedic disease, stroke, arthritis, infection, or foreign body in the leg.
Although lethargy is a common symptom, it can be difficult to find its cause. Dr. Stephanie Scott of Pearl Animal Hospital explains, “Lethargy is a difficult symptom to interpret. It can run the gamut of something not concerning, like being tired from a busy, active day, to a very concerning symptom of a serious potentially life-threatening problem.” Because lethargy is such a general symptom, your veterinarian will likely want to supplement a physical exam with detailed lab work and radiographs. If a pet parent is worried, Scott advises that they have their pet seen by a veterinarian – especially if there are any other symptoms.
Possible causes of lethargy include: gastrointestinal upset, cardiac disease, infection, immune-mediated hemolytic anemia, muscle or joint pain, bloat, cancer, urinary issues, or kennel cough.
Like lethargy, loss of appetite is a common but vague symptom that can be caused by a variety of conditions. When accompanied by other symptoms, or the pet has a major systemic disease, it should be seen by a veterinarian. For instance, if your pet has diabetes, you should contact your vet if even one meal is skipped.
It is especially important for a cat who is not eating to see a vet within 24 hours, as s/he is vulnerable to hepatic lipidosis, or liver failure, a life-threatening disease. If your pet seems hungry but does not eat, you can try to make the food more enticing by heating it to room temperature or adding tasty, aromatic treats, such as water from canned tuna. According to Dr. Dillon, “Sometimes offering small amounts for food at a time can be a little less overwhelming.”
Possible causes of in appetence include: gastrointestinal upset, foreign body blockage, cancer, kidney or other organ disease, pain, pancreatitis, or thyroid disease.
When in Doubt
Only a veterinarian has the training and tools needed to fully diagnose and treat your pet. Dr. Scott encourages, “I am here to help your pet feel better. Your pet, my patient, can’t speak, so I rely on you, the pet owner, to help me figure out what is going on. Lab work and/or radiographs [x-rays] can really help me determine what is or what is not going on.” There are many options for low-stress, patient-focused veterinary care – from clinics with separate entrances for cats and dogs to veterinarians who provide in-home care – and your veterinarian is there to help. As Dr. Su says, “If you’re on the fence or at all uncertain, call your vet!”
Daniela Iancu, founder of Animal Community Talks, has worked and volunteered with veterinary practices and animal welfare organizations in the Portland area for the last decade. Her happy home includes a wonderfully supportive husband and sweet senior cat, Maya.
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