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Small dog on a vet‘s table

The essentials

  • Look for warning signs your cat is crying for help — Watch for increased thirst, frequent and abnormal vocalization, personality changes, trouble jumping, and bad breath.
  • When in doubt, go to the emergency vet — If a problem is identified and treated early on (rather than asking Google and waiting), there’s a greater chance of a successful and positive outcome.
  • Many times, you may not know they’re in pain — While cats in pain present differently than dogs, they both minimize their pain. Dogs may be lethargic, have difficulty walking, excessively pant or drool, vomit, or have diarrhea.

As a pet owner, it’s completely natural to feel anxiety, concern, and fear when your pet is injured or acting unwell. Fear and worry that you may not act quickly enough only make the situation more stressful. It’s okay to feel this way. If you’re unsure whether or not your pet’s situation warrants a trip to the vet, it’s best to go. Every moment counts, and diagnosing and treating any issues early on has a better chance of a successful outcome.

Unusual behavior in your dog or cat may indicate that your pet is in pain or has an underlying health issue. Certain symptoms and behaviors are the only way they can communicate that they’re feeling unwell. Here’s what pet owners need to know about when to take their pets to the emergency vet.

1. Is your pet straining to use the bathroom?

Straining to use the bathroom can be due to underlying causes, like tumors or neurological issues. These conditions can obstruct urine flow, causing your pet to strain when peeing.

A build-up of urine in the bladder can rupture or lead to severe complications like chronic kidney disease or kidney failure. Straining to use the bathroom is an emergency, especially when accompanied by other symptoms. These symptoms include whining or meowing when trying to pass urine, a strong smell, bloody or cloudy urine, or a fever.

2. Are they experiencing cognitive issues, seizures, or unconsciousness?

Cognitive issues, seizures, unconsciousness, weakness, or collapse can indicate several health issues, such as respiratory problems, anemia, internal bleeding, or other cardiac issues. Collapse, weakness, and an inability to stand — not due to mobility issues — are other indicators of an emergency.

A dog collapsing or passing out may display signs of distress, disorientation, and confusion. Endocrine disorders, like Addison’s or diabetes, can trigger these symptoms. Additionally, it may be a reaction to medications, insect bites, or poisoning. The early warning signs of some of these conditions may be subtle, so be sure to watch for any changes in behavior.

Pet owners should not hesitate to take their animal to the vet:

Seizures lasting longer than five minutes, back-to-back seizures, and things like bleeding, trouble breathing, altered mentation, collapse, and an inability for male cats to urinate.

Dr. Erica Irish

3. Are they unable to stand or use their hind legs?

Spinal cord injuries, orthopedic issues, or broader systematic problems may be causing these symptoms. Additionally, dragging the hind legs usually indicates a blood clot. Immediate emergency vet treatment is critical to prevent irreversible damage.

4. Are they uninterested in food and water, repeatedly vomiting, unproductive retching, or have diarrhea?

Usually, these symptoms co-occur and may indicate that your pet consumed a toxic substance, such as xylitol, poisonous plants, and harmful foods. Other causes are infectious disease or organ dysfunction. If you notice retching by itself or with any other symptoms in dogs, this could be a sign of bloat. Bloat is a life-threatening emergency that requires immediate attention. Similarly, if you notice blood in their stool or vomit, call an emergency veterinarian immediately.

🚨If you notice these symptoms, immediately take your pet to the emergency veterinarian. While en route, call the Pet Poison Helpline (855) 764-7661 for further guidance.

5. Do they have labored or difficulty breathing, choking, or nonstop coughing?

Heart disease can cause breathing difficulties like choking, wheezing, coughing, and panting. Coughing can suggest an infectious disease, like kennel cough, or a collapsing trachea . If your pet coughs up blood, immediate action is critical. Breathing difficulties can be life-threatening, and prompt action can save your pet’s life.

6. Are they bleeding from the eyes, nose, or mouth? Are they squinting with swollen eyes?

Bleeding from the eye can be a sign of an underlying issue. Some include poisoning, infections, cancer, elevated blood pressure, or trauma. It can also be symptomatic of a clotting disorder and, in some cases, may cause an eye to become dislodged from the socket. Your pet is likely in pain, requiring immediate veterinary attention to prevent vision or eye loss.

7. Is your pet limping, or do they have swollen limbs?

Limping may be a warning sign that your cat or dog is dealing with muscle trauma, a fracture, or Lyme disease. Limping that persists longer than a day or avoiding putting weight on their legs are all signs you should go to the emergency vet. Swelling of limbs and hives throughout the body may be an allergic reaction. Swollen limbs are an emergency that can lead to anaphylactic shock if not addressed and treated by a vet.

8. Do you notice restlessness, shaking, or whining without reason?

If your cat is acting anxious, restless, shaking, or vocalizing without clear symptoms, this could be a warning sign your cat is crying for help. The same goes for your dog.  While thunderstorms and fireworks cause stress for some animals, if it seems like they aren’t themselves, this is cause for concern. Trembling and shivering can also indicate a more serious condition, like kidney failure, distemper, injury, seizures, or poisoning.

9. Is your pet panting excessively?

Dogs regulate their body temperature through panting, making them vulnerable to heatstroke. Heatstroke is especially dangerous in brachycephalic breeds, like pugs, bulldogs, boxers, and French bulldogs. It causes a dangerous rise in body temperatures and organ failure, becoming life-threatening fast.

Never leave your pet in an environment where they can’t get out of the heat, like a car or an area without shade or water. Watch for symptoms like heavy breathing, dry or sticky gums, pale gums, excessive drooling, lethargy, or disorientation.

👉Looking for tips to keep your dog or cat cool this summer? Check out our guides for summer safety.

Essential triage information every pet owner should know

Depending on your pet’s condition, there may be various wait times when you bring your dog or cat to an emergency animal hospital. A triage system helps veterinarians determine the prioritization of care, which can result in longer wait times for non-life-threatening situations. A triage system ensures that life-threatening issues receive immediate attention first.

Emergency life-saving measures

Certain conditions are considered extreme and need immediate emergency and life-saving measures. These can include poisoning, allergic reactions, heatstroke, bloat, choking, seizures, major trauma, bite wounds, excessive bleeding, difficulty breathing, collapse, and inability to urinate. Most of these can lead to severe complications and can be fatal.

Semi-urgent to urgent

Semi-urgent and urgent conditions need prompt veterinary care but may not be life-threatening. Although there may be longer wait times, clinics prioritize these conditions. Frequent vomiting and bloody diarrhea, paralysis, fractures, blood in urine, and urination difficulties all fall under this category.

Non-life-threatening situations

For non-life-threatening conditions, you may experience longer wait times. These can include abscesses, minor wounds or lacerations, sneezing, nasal discharge, chronic conditions, limping, and skin conditions. These conditions still need treatment, but they are generally not considered emergencies.

If your pet is experiencing any of the symptoms we’ve covered above, head straight to the emergency animal hospital. Life-threatening conditions need immediate care. Look for warning signs your pet is crying for help, and when in doubt go to the emergency vet. Delaying care can increase complications and have fatal outcomes.

Frequently asked questions

How do you tell if a dog is having a medical emergency?

If your pet has a bloated, swollen, or painful abdomen, this could be a life-threatening condition like bloat. Difficulty breathing, extreme coughing or choking, inflammation or injury to the eye, and obvious pain need urgent care. Staggering, stumbling, uncontrolled bleeding, excessive vomiting, and unconsciousness can lead to severe complications. These are medical emergencies, and you should seek immediate care for the best chance of recovery.

Which symptoms are considered pet emergencies?

Severe bleeding, blood in urine, stool, or vomit, breathing difficulties, and broken bones are pet emergencies. Others include excessive vomiting (more than 3 times in 1 hour), pale gums, heatstroke, ingestion of toxins, unconsciousness, and a swollen abdomen. Delaying care can increase the risk of complications and have severe health outcomes.

When should I take my cat to the emergency vet for not eating?

If your cat shows signs of weight loss, diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, or a loss of appetite, it’s time to speak with your vet. These symptoms can escalate and lead to more serious health complications. Early intervention is critical to treat the underlying cause.

How can you tell if a cat is not feeling well?

Cats may show changes to their appearance, sociability, fur condition, energy levels, or changes in their appetite. Other signs include changes in litter box habits, breathing, or discharge from the eyes or nose.

What are 3 signs your dog is suffering?

Excessive panting, trembling, and restlessness are 3 warning signs that your dog is suffering. These symptoms signify that something’s amiss and shouldn’t be ignored.