essential tips

📷 by Tatiana Rodriguez

Common pet emergencies

Whether a pet swallowed something toxic or was in a serious accident, these are the most common conditions and injuries that will send pet parents to an emergency vet clinic. 

Anaphylaxis and anaphylactic shock. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction that is commonly caused by insect bites and stings. Dogs may show signs of itching, swelling on the face or muzzle, drooling, vomiting, or diarrhea. In severe cases, dogs may have trouble breathing and blue pale gums.

Bloating, gastric dilation, and volvulus. Dog bloat, also known as gastric dilation-volvulus, can cause the stomach to rotate and is fatal if left untreated. Bloat happens when a dog’s stomach fills with gas, food, or fluid. It’s something commonly seen in large dog breeds. Dogs may have a distended or hard stomach (look and gently feel around the area), and may drool, vomit, pace, or be in obvious discomfort.

Bleeding. It’s important for every pet parent to know uncontrollable bleeding that isn’t ending requires an immediate vet visit. The exact reasons your pet is bleeding may be obvious — like if they were in an accident or attacked — or unknown, if you suddenly noticed the problem. Either way, your veterinarian can determine why your pet’s bleeding, the extent of their injuries, and how to help them.

Bites and wounds. If left untreated, these puncture wounds can become infected. You can provide basic first aid at home by applying pressure and gently washing out the wound. But you still need to visit an animal hospital — wounds may deceptively appear minor when they’re actually serious.

Broken bones. Just like humans, dogs can break their bones by jumping, running, or doing anything active. One common cause of broken bones in dogs: being hit by a vehicle. Since you can’t set a broken bone at home, see a veterinarian who can.

Burns. Dogs and cats have sensitive skin that can be burned by fire, steam, acid, or chemicals. A dog’s paw pads are also susceptible to burns from walking on hot summer pavement. Dogs with burnt paw pads will often limp or lick excessively.

Choking and difficulty breathing. If you suddenly hear your beloved four-legged companion coughing, it might be because they have something stuck in their mouth or throat. Sometimes animals will try to eat something they shouldn’t — or get something stuck around their throat — leading to choking and difficulty breathing. This can be life-threatening, especially when you can’t clear their airways.

Eating poison. If you suspect your pet has eaten something poisonous (like xylitol in peanut butter, chocolate, or rodent poison), contact an animal poison control hotline. Depending on the type of poison ingested, a vet visit may be in order.

👉 Pet Poison Helpline: 855-764-7611

👉 ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center Helpline: 888-426-4435

Eclampsia. Nursing female dogs are susceptible to eclampsia, a life-threatening drop in blood calcium levels, as a result of producing milk, losing calcium to developing puppies, or not eating a good diet during pregnancy or nursing. Small breeds are at an increased risk.

Eye injuries. Common eye injuries include cuts on the eye’s surface, puncture wounds, or eyelid trouble. Small dog breeds are more susceptible to proptosis (when eyes pop out of the socket). Pets experiencing eye injuries may paw the area, blink rapidly, squint, or be unable to open their eyes.

Heatstroke. Usually accompanied by excessive panting, dogs with heatstroke may be experiencing drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of consciousness, uncoordinated movement, and reddened gums. Heatstroke can be fatal. It’s important to keep an eye out for these symptoms particularly during the hot summer months.

Heart failure. Unfortunately, dogs can experience unexpected heart failures suddenly. Heart failure is generally caused by heart disease, irregular rhythms, or problems with heart valves. The most common symptoms of heart failure tend to be a combination of persistent coughing and difficulty breathing.

Inability to urinate or poop. Dogs might get blocked up because of gastrointestinal problems like obstructions. Canines with bladder stones or crystals in their urine are also prone to urinary blockages.

Seizures. The most common cause of seizures in dogs is epilepsy (especially in younger pups). Brain trauma, tumors, and inflammation can cause seizures. Dogs might have seizures because of kidney failure, liver disease, or because they inherited the condition from a family member. Dogs and cats with seizures might be completely normal in between episodes.

Severe vomiting or diarrhea. While you don’t need to worry about every case of vomiting or diarrhea, sometimes it can be a sign of a more serious condition. It could be a natural reaction to eating something they shouldn’t have. If your dog or cat vomits once but appears otherwise okay, you probably don’t need to speak to a vet. However, continuous bouts of vomiting or diarrhea, especially when mixed with other symptoms, requires a vet visit.

Trauma or severe bleeding. Anytime your pet has experienced trauma — be it a bite, dislocated joint, skin laceration, eye injuries, or other traumatic injuries — an experienced veterinarian needs to take a look to address the problem and see if there are any internal injuries.

Unconsciousness or collapse. If your pet collapses suddenly, it’s a clear sign something’s seriously wrong. Sudden unconsciousness or collapse can be caused by dehydration, severe allergic reactions, diabetes, heatstroke, or other medical conditions. Get your pet to an animal hospital immediately so they can identify the culprit.

The costs of common emergency care

First, the actual vet visit

When your pet has an urgent need for medical attention, you’ll be making an emergency ER visit so they can be seen right away. Emergency veterinary care typically includes an exam, any necessary tests like ultrasounds or biopsies, and even surgery. If your canine or cat companion needs to be hospitalized for constant professional care, your bill will rise every night as your pet is taken care of by friendly staff and given whatever medicines or treatments they need.

Type of care Potential cost for dogs Potential costs for cats
ER visit $100-$200 $100-$200
Hospitalization $800-$1,500 per night $800-$1,500 per night

Diagnostic testing

Veterinarians and vet techs may use diagnostic imaging services to get a better look at what’s going on inside your pet’s body. Vets will often use ultrasounds or X-rays to take a close look at internal organs like the kidneys, bladder, or uterus so they can identify internal injuries or foreign objects. 

If your beloved pet has a tumor or skin lesion, your veterinarian’s likely going to take biopsy samples and submit them to a veterinary lab. Biopsies are often used in dermatology and oncology and allow vets to know if tumors are cancerous and to see if there’s another disease causing the problem.

Vets regularly run blood or urine tests to diagnose certain health conditions like diabetes, allergies, pancreatic issues, or diseases. Sometimes professional staff members need to run blood tests before pets undergo anesthesia during surgery so they can adjust dosages as needed. These tests are a routine part of checkups and are commonly used on senior pets with pre-existing conditions.

Type of care Potential cost for dogs and cats
X-rays $200-$400
Tumor biopsy $500-$4,000
Ultrasound $350-$600
Urine culture test $25-$100
DDC genetic testing $20-$80
MRI/PET $1,500-$2,500

Allergic reactions

Photos of puppies with puffy snouts are super cute, but allergic reactions are no joke. When dogs or cats are stung by bees, wasps, or spiders, they’ll likely have an allergic reaction — one of the most common reasons for an emergency vet visit. They can even be allergic to foods like beef, dairy products, chicken, and soy. A sensitivity to a vaccine is a common trigger of allergic reactions.

A puffy face is a mild allergic reaction, but severe reactions include a swelling of the larynx (throat), leading to difficulty breathing, collapse, and possible death. Vets will need to remove any stingers, administer antihistamines (like Benadryl) or epinephrines, and in severe cases, keep pets 24/7 to monitor their blood pressure, oxygen, and heart.

Type of reaction

Anaphylaxis

Potential cost for dogs and cats $350-$800

Broken bones

Dogs and cats are an important part of your family, and just like any family member, can break a bone. They may have a bone broken due to an accident, like a car crash, fall, or collision. Senior pets and pets with health conditions are generally at a higher risk, as they have weaker bones. Small dog breeds and cats can even suffer broken bones from people stepping on or tripping over them.

Veterinary technicians will typically take X-rays to determine the exact placement of the break. A skilled veterinary team can set broken bones and place them in a cast. More severe cases will require surgery. This, of course, leads to a long recovery time, as dogs and cats can’t enjoy a high level of activity (no jumping or running) and will need to wear a cone to avoid licking themselves.

Type of care Potential cost for dogs Potential cost for cats
Wound treatment & repair $800-$2,500 $800-$1,500
Emergency surgery (bloat, foreign body, hit by a car) $1,800-$5,000 $1,500-$3,000
X-rays $200-$400 $200-$400

Cancer

Half of all dogs over the age of 10 will develop cancer, according to the AVMA. While the rate of cancer in cats is unknown, the signs of cancer can appear rapidly on any pet and is something that necessitates immediate treatment. Symptoms include sudden changes in weight, visible tumors, non-healing wounds, abdominal swelling, and difficulty breathing and eating.

Cancer can quickly become costly because of the kinds of specialized care and treatments needed. Just like humans, cancer can be treated three ways: chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. Veterinary oncologists will create a specialized treatment plan depending on your pet’s kind of cancer, stage and location of cancer, age, and overall health. Unfortunately, in cases where the cancer can’t be eradicated, vets will provide treatment to make your pet comfortable.

Type of care Potential cost for dogs Potential cost for cats
Initial consultation $125-$250 $125-$250
Average cost of chemotherapy $150-$500 $150-$500
Average cost of radiation for a palliative protocol $1,000-$1,800 $1,000-$1,800
Average cost of radiation for a curative intent protocol $600-$4,500 $600-$4,500
Total average cost $4,137 $3,282

Heart failure, pneumonia, or asthma

Flat-faced dogs and cats (known as brachycephalic breeds) have shorter, squished-up noses that make breathing naturally more difficult. These flat-faced animals have shorter muzzles but more skin and soft tissue on their cute faces, which can cause airways to become partially blocked. Brachycephalic breeds can also have narrowed windpipes, which also causes breathing to be more difficult. Brachycephalic dogs include pugs, French bulldogs, English bulldogs, cavalier King Charles spaniels, and shih tzus. Some cats, like Persians, Himalayan, and Burmese breeds, are also considered brachycephalic.

But it’s not just brachycephalic breeds that experience respiratory problems. Dogs and cats of all breeds can experience heart failure, pneumonia, or asthma. As many as 75 percent of senior dogs have a heart condition, and heart disease (a precursor to heart failure), which can either develop as pets age or be present when they’re born. Asthma is typically caused by some kind of allergen (like pollen, food, or environmental irritant) and is treatable. Animals experiencing heart failure, pneumonia, or asthma will likely have trouble breathing and need to see a veterinarian.

Veterinarians will often give any cats and dogs experiencing difficulty breathing supplemental oxygen. Pets will have to stay in a special crate to receive oxygen and may have to wear a mask. It’s also normal for pets to receive oxygen when they’re under anesthesia during routine procedures like teeth cleaning.

Type of care

Oxygen therapy

Potential cost for dogs $800-$3,000
Potential cost for cats $500-$2,500

Gastrointestinal, vomiting, diarrhea, or stomach foreign object

Mealtime might be your pet’s favorite time of the day, but eating a foreign object (think dog toy or sock) can make your day a nightmare. If you don’t know that your dog or cat swallowed a foreign object, it might make its way into their stomach and become stuck, causing gastrointestinal distress and intestinal damage. Veterinarians will need to operate to extract large objects.

Stomach bloat (known as gastric dilatation-volvulus) is a serious, life-threatening condition  — especially in large breed dogs. A buildup of air or fluid in a dog or cat’s stomach can cause it to twist — and is always an emergency necessitating a veterinary visit. Stomach bloat happens quickly and is often caused by pets swallowing too much air when they gulp down a meal.

Unfortunately, cats and dogs ingesting food intended for humans, too much food, or toxic substances may experience diarrhea or vomiting. Our pets have sensitive stomachs that can’t handle the dietary freedoms we enjoy, so always keep an eye on what your dog or cat is eating — and if they’re showing interest in something they shouldn’t digest.

Treatment for Potential cost for dogs Potential cost for cats
Gastroenteritis $750-$3,000 $200-$2,000
Intestinal obstruction with surgery $800-$7,000 $800-$7,000
Severe pancreatitis $1,000-$5,000 $400-$1,500
Stomach “bloat” (GDV) $3,000-$8,000 $500-$3,000

Ingestion of toxic substance

Unfortunately, it’s easy for your canine and cat companions to accidentally ingest toxic substances. A piece of delicious human food — like chocolate, avocados, or onions — can easily hit the floor and be licked up by your pet. Peanut butter, while a delightful treat enjoyed by most dog breeds, may contain an ingredient called xylitol, a sugar substitute that causes a life-threatening decrease in blood sugar levels. Even certain types of plants are poisonous to dogs — including common plants like aloe vera and daisies, or particular kinds of mushrooms.

Dogs and cats can also be poisoned by eating marijuana or human CBD edibles or by inhaling the smoke. In fact, the Pet Poison Hotline has seen a 448 percent increase in marijuana pet poisonings in the last six years.

Pets can be poisoned from investigating their environment and drinking substances found on the ground. They might lick dripping antifreeze from a leaking car radiator, or ingest it from brake fluid or certain kinds of paints or wood stains. Even a teaspoon of antifreeze can kill a cat or dog, depending on their size.

While some toxic substances might cause temporary tummy troubles, the ingestion of toxic substances can lead to fatal consequences. If you think your pet ingested a toxic substance, contact your veterinarian immediately. Treatment depends on the amount and type of poison ingested as well as your pet’s size and overall health. Vets may need to induce vomiting or administer antidotes.

Treatment for

Poison

Potential cost for dogs $250-$5,000
Potential cost for cats $250-$5,000

🚨 Think your dog or cat ingested something poisonous? Call ASPCA Poison Control (888) 426-4435.

Seizures

Scientists aren’t sure what inherited disorder causes idiopathic epilepsy to happen in cats and dogs, but one thing is true — seizures are one of the most commonly reported types of neurological conditions in dogs, according to VCA Hospitals. Head trauma, liver disease, kidney failure, brain tumors, or other diseases could cause seizures. Affected dogs and cats may appear totally normal in between episodes.

Since so many different health problems could be to blame for your pet’s seizures, primary veterinarians and support staff will need to run lots of tests before arriving at a definitive diagnosis. Your dog or cat may be referred to emergency care or hospitalized for specialized treatment. Vets may run blood or urine tests or use X-rays to see inside your pet’s body and brain to determine if any tumors or other issues exist. 

Your veterinarian will likely ask you about any history of head trauma and check to see if any exposure to toxic substances could be the culprit. Vets may use an electrocardiogram to see if there’s an issue with their heart or blood pressure.

Even if veterinary specialists can’t identify a root cause, cats and dogs will need regular treatment. In some cases, it may not be possible to stop the seizures, but veterinarians may be able to reduce the frequency.

Type of treatment

Epilepsy

Potential cost for dogs and cats $500-$5,000

Trauma

Whether your pet’s been hit by a car, attacked by another animal, spent too much time in the sun, or suffered another accident, the cost of repairing trauma rises quickly. These situations are frightening for you and your pet, and they could experience both physical and emotional trauma. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of ways your pets could experience trauma.

Unleashed or unsecured dogs may run into traffic chasing another dog, squirrel, or simply because they’re running away to explore their environment. A dog can easily take a wrong turn on a hiking trail, or stand on an unsteady cliff side rock, resulting in a dangerous drop. And just like humans, dogs and cats can become overheated. Unlike humans, they can’t say that they need to cool down, and their rapid panting and high body temperature can turn into a heatstroke, which can be fatal.

Additionally, a cat or dog could step on a broken electrical cord and experience shock. Shock results in a decrease in oxygen as pets begin experiencing shallow, rapid breathing. Animal bites from an attack can also result in skin trauma and even broken bones.

If you’ve just experienced an accident with your pet, give the emergency pet hospital a call to let them know you’re on the way. Time is of the essence in these situations, and giving the emergency pet hospital notice gives them more time to prepare for your arrival.

Treatment for Potential cost for dogs and cats
Electrical cord shock $500-$3,000
Heatstroke $1,500-$6,000
High-rise fall $500-$6,000
Hit-by-car $250-$8,000

How to prepare for emergencies

The time to think about the worst is before it happens. From natural disasters like fires and floods to emergency pet care for the need of urgent medical attention, you need to have an emergency plan in place.

Have a financial plan

One key component to being prepared: knowing how you’ll pay when your pet needs urgent medical attention. Some pet owners will pay out of pocket for unforeseen circumstances, but many choose to pay for pet insurance to cover emergencies. In fact, pet insurance is becoming more and more popular: the North American Pet Health Insurance Association’s 2021 State of the Industry report found that 3.45 million pets are insured — a 23 percent increase from previous years.

👉 For $19 a month, Pawp provides pet parents (of dogs and cats) an annual $3,000 emergency fund that even covers emergencies related to pre-existing conditions.

Have your pet’s medical record handy

In an emergency, there’s no time to waste. Having your pet’s lifelong medical history on hand may sound like a hassle, but is instrumental to skilled veterinarians deciding which treatments and medicines to administer. At a glance, vets can see what health challenges your precious pet has experienced in the past, and what medications or vaccinations they’re in need of.

Your pet’s medical record includes a record of when they got vaccinations, their weight and length, surgeries, diseases, current medications, and a complete record of every veterinary visit ever taken. Ask your family’s regular vet for a full medical history of your pet. Keep hard copies of any veterinarian records on hand and bring them with you to any emergency veterinary visit.

Know where your closest emergency vet is

If you’re traveling with your pet, know where the closest veterinary practice is. You never know when your dog or cat might injure themselves on vacation — and it just takes a few minutes to look up nearby vets. Save their contact info in your phone for ease of access. In case of emergency, you can go to any nearby vet, and you’ll want them to be the first person you call. Many veterinarians offer after-hours service and some areas have emergency pet hospitals that operate outside of normal business hours.

It’s also a good idea to travel with a pet first aid kit that includes gauze, tweezers, non-stick bandages, travel bowls, and a spare leash and collar in case your pet is ever in need of immediate medical attention. We love this first aid kit from ARCA Pet, which includes all of the must-haves and comes in a compact size that’s ideal for traveling.

Is a pet sitter, friend, or family member watching your pet?

While emergencies can’t always be prevented, you can make them easier for your pet sitters to manage. Always leave pet sitters and loved ones with a pet emergency plan.

Create a pet sitter checklist — Cover your pet’s daily schedule (when they eat, walk, or take medication) and the location of pet essentials at home (including medications, leashes, bowls, and food). Before you leave, make sure that your home is stocked with a large supply of your pet’s food, medications, and treats.

Include your veterinarian’s information — Your family’s regular vet needs to be the first person your pet sitter calls in a medical emergency, so have your vet’s address and phone number written down in case your pet sitter needs to contact them.

Consider emergency scenarios in advance — Does your pet have a pre-existing health condition? Consider what problems could arise and if you’d like to limit the kind of care they receive. Additionally, think about how medical emergencies would be paid for — will you leave an emergency credit card for your pet sitter? — and what you can financially afford. Specify any financial limitations, treatment preferences, and payment options in your pet emergency plan.

Show pet sitters how to use medication — If your pet requires medication or shots, demonstrate to your pet sitter how to administer them in advance. Don’t assume that they’ll know without your guidance. Your emergency plan should note how much medication to give (and how often), where medicine is kept, and a detailed checklist of how to administer it.