Dogs aren’t only man’s best friends, they’re true family members. So, when a dog emergency befalls our canine companions it can be a very stressful time.
When your dog isn’t acting like themselves, it’s important to weigh the factors that might be causing the unusual behavior. Some signs and symptoms might need the attention of your regular veterinarian soon, but others should raise a red flag as they might be a true dog emergency.
Mary Austin, DVM, at Animal Medical Clinic in Bountiful, Utah, says the following criteria constitute a medical emergency for dogs:
- Having difficulty breathing
- Broke a bone
- Is bleeding profusely
- Has a swollen face with hives, severe vomiting, diarrhea or collapse
- Incoordination when walking (falling over, circling)
- Has a history of trauma (hit by car, fell off a second story porch)
- Ingested a toxin
In these instances, pet parents should make a quick decision to seek immediate medical attention, Dr. Austin says. In other, less severe cases, a trip to the animal ER isn’t necessary—pet parents can wait to see their regular vet in the coming days. Here are some potential emergency scenarios and how to tell the difference between a true dog emergency and a situation that can wait for your regular vet.
Would you take yourself to the emergency room after vomiting once? Probably not. The same goes for your dog: Isolated instances of vomiting one or two times shouldn’t be a big concern, says Corinne Lawson, DVM, DACVECC, of the small animal critical care unit at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Veterinary Medicine in Madison.
That’s especially true if your dog is prone to digestive problems.
“With my own dog, I know that if I give him a treat in the afternoon and I only give him one, nine times out of 10, he’s going to vomit because it sets off his stomach,” Dr. Lawson says.
Repeated episodes of vomiting and co-occurring symptoms, on the other hand, could indicate a serious condition that requires a trip to an emergency vet. Dr. Austin says that “vomiting continuously over a few hours” even when your dog isn’t producing anything, could be an emergency. “Also, vomit with significant amounts of fresh (bright red) blood, or vomiting accompanied by severe lethargy and a reluctance to move or stand,” she says, is a true emergency.
As with vomiting, not all instances of diarrhea are an emergency. It can be caused by myriad conditions and irritants—anything from gastrointestinal disease to an allergic reaction—so Dr. Lawson recommends watching for abnormal behavior in addition to frequent diarrhea.
“What’s not an emergent situation is that they ate some cookies and two hours later they have diarrhea,” Dr. Lawson says. “That’s not surprising. If they’re really sedate, collapsing or otherwise really sick, that’s much more concerning.”
If your dog has profuse and watery diarrhea accompanied by severe lethargy, black and tarry stool, or significant amounts of fresh blood in the diarrhea, Dr. Austin recommends visiting your veterinarian immediately.
Whether the stool is watery or firm, a large amount of blood should always be alarming, Dr. Lawson says.
Bloat, or Distended Abdomen
Bloat is the layperson’s term for a potentially fatal twisted stomach, known in medical circles as gastric dilatation volvulus (GDV). It’s a different and far more serious condition than general “bloating,” which is more of a way of saying that your dog’s stomach is full of food or liquid, Dr. Lawson says.
Unless your dog suffers from a known problem that causes bloating, “anytime your dog’s abdomen is larger than it should be, you should get them checked out,” Dr. Lawson says. She also notes that large-breed dogs like German Shepherds and Great Danes are particularly predisposed to GDV.
“This is an emergency because the turning of the stomach cuts off blood supply, so can cause the stomach or intestinal tissue to die. This can very quickly become life threatening,” Dr. Austin says.
Signs of GDV include severe lethargy, such as lying in one place with a reluctance to get up, heavy breathing, and an enlarged, painful or tense abdomen. Unfortunately, these symptoms can also indicate that your dog has a food-bloated stomach, not the fatal condition involving stomach-twisting. As a general rule, if your dog has a large distended stomach, go to the veterinarian as soon as possible. If it turns out to be a case of overeating, you can laugh it off and rest easy—but the only way to know for sure is to take an X-ray.
“We have people call in all the time and say, ‘My dog is bloated.’ You take an X-ray, and the dog isn’t full of gas, it’s full of food,” Dr. Lawson says. “Then the owners go home and see they got into the cat food.”
Did you know that dogs can “reverse sneeze”? When this happens, it looks and sounds like your dog can’t catch their breath, and it can be very scary. But Dr. Austin says that reverse sneezing isn’t an emergency if the episodes are intermittent and occasional.
“What you want to watch for is when it looks like all your dog wants to do is breathe when there is no reason for it—for example, they have not been exercising yet they are struggling,” she says. “Difficulty breathing will be continuous.”
Also, take note if your dog is “sitting or standing with their head extended, breathing heavily with not just their chest, but also their abdomen,” which is a definite emergency, Dr. Austin says. “And if they are reluctant to walk, eat and drink.”
Here’s an easy rule: When your dog is sleeping normally, they should take between 10 and 20 breaths per minute, Dr. Lawson says. (Count how many times they breathe in 15 seconds and multiply that number by four.) If they’re taking around 40 breaths per minute, that is considered abnormal and should prompt a visit to the ER.
Seizures can vary significantly in their presentation, Dr. Austin says, so if you’re unsure if your dog is having a seizure, a trip to the vet is a must.
“The most obvious seizures involve thrashing on the ground, paddling with their legs and foaming at the mouth,” Dr. Austin says. “It is important to make sure the dog is in a safe area, then do not touch them. They may be unaware of who you are in that moment, and even the sweetest dog can accidentally bite you.”
Mild seizures, she says, can look like the dog is biting at flies or just bobbing their head.
Even if a dog has a history of seizures, one lasting longer than five minutes or two separate seizures in a 24-hour period should prompt an immediate visit to the veterinarian.
If your dog experiences a seizure for the first time, Dr. Lawson recommends following up with blood work to determine whether your pup ingested a toxin, like a food item not safe for dogs, or has a seizure disorder.
“If it’s a 1-year-old Lab running around happily that suddenly has a seizure, they could have gotten into some xylitol-containing gum that made their blood-glucose get really low,” she says. “Even if it’s a 10-year-old dog that starts having seizures, that’s really alarming. It could be a problem with their liver. They always should be seen by a vet.”
Some dogs are known to eat everything in their path, and while the list of potential toxins that could be an emergency in dogs is long, Dr. Austin points out the most common she typically sees.
- Dark chocolate: “Cocoa powder can cause vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, seizures and even death in dogs,” Dr. Austin says. “White chocolate is non-toxic, and milk chocolate is only mildly toxic unless your dog eats a significant amount. Dark chocolate, baking chocolate and cocoa powder are all highly toxic and constitute an emergency.”
- Rat poison: Poisons used for rats, gophers, moles and other pests can cause internal bleeding. “You may not see side effects for a few days, but it is important to take your dog to a veterinarian as soon as you discover they ate rat poison.”
- Fertilizer: Dr. Austin says that some fertilizers may cause vomiting, diarrhea and seizures. She recommends calling your veterinarian with the type of fertilizer to see if it is dangerous.
- Grapes: Grapes can cause kidney failure, Dr. Austin says.
- Onions and garlic: These substances can cause severe anemia, Dr. Austin says.
If you discover your dog has eaten any of these substances, Dr. Austin recommends calling your vet immediately. Pet parents can also call pet poison hotlines like the Pet Poison Helpline (800-213-6680) or ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (888-426-4435).
Some working dogs are regularly exposed to nonpoisonous snakebites, Dr. Lawson says. But if you don’t know what kind of snake bit your dog—and most people don’t know their snakes, she says—you should err on the side of caution and go to an emergency vet.
Pet parents often don’t realize their dogs have been bitten by a snake, Dr. Lawson says. This is common during hikes or while working outdoors, when your dog is free to run through grass and bushes.
“It could be that you heard a yelp and 20 minutes later you’re starting to see swelling,” she says. “You need to get them in.”
Rattlesnakes are especially dangerous, Dr. Austin says. “Their toxin can cause the tissue around the bite wound to die over time, and your dog may also have a severe allergic reaction that can be life threatening. Try to keep your dog calm, and carry them if possible; the less they move the better until they receive treatment.”
Squinting or Redness in One or Both Eyes
“Usually this is not an emergency,” Dr. Austin says, but it definitely warrants a trip to the veterinarian.
Some eye injuries are severe enough to be considered an emergency.
“Occasionally ulcers or scratches in the eye can be so deep that the eye is at risk of rupturing; in this case, the dog is likely holding their eye completely shut,” she says.
Dr. Austin warns not to try to pry your dog’s eyelid open to take a peek, as this may cause more damage.
The only way to know what’s happening is by bringing your dog to the vet to stain their eyes, Dr. Lawson says. Though eye problems generally don’t represent red-alert emergencies, she’s seen dogs lose eyes because ulcers were not addressed quickly enough.
How to Find an Emergency Vet
If you’re unsure about whether you’re facing a dog emergency, it never hurts to call a vet and ask, Dr. Lawson says. But what if you don’t know who to call or where to go? Especially for the recently relocated, it may not be obvious where to seek treatment for your pet.
“What I recommend is searching ‘animal emergency center’ or ‘emergency veterinarian,’” Dr. Lawson says. “Google will just show you where they are. If it’s a life-threatening emergency, get your dog to the closest ER—don’t pick and choose.”
Encountering an emergency on the road can be especially confusing. When Dr. Lawson travels with her own pets, she looks for veterinarians in the area she’ll be visiting. For new residents of an unfamiliar city, she recommends relying on word of mouth and asking neighbors about emergency veterinary care in the area. Your regular vet can point you in the right direction, too.
What to Do in a Dog Emergency
Staying calm during a true life-and-death emergency is easier said than done, but it’s difficult to make good decisions when you’re panicking, Dr. Lawson says.
“It’s going to be scary and emotions are going to be all over the place,” she says. “Sometimes, some awful-looking stuff happens—your dog gets hit by a car and they’re really badly hurt—but you still need to stay calm. Take five seconds to breathe and collect yourself.”
Getting your critically injured dog to an emergency clinic is best approached as a two-person operation, with one person driving and the other sitting in the back with the wounded animal, Dr. Lawson says. If the dog requires CPR, the person in the back can start administering CPR en route, provided that they have the training to do so.
“I do know some people who have started CPR in the car and it actually could make a difference, depending on the cause of the cardiac arrest,” she says.
It’s also helpful to call the clinic in advance so they can prepare to care for your dog, Dr. Lawson says.
Above all, keep your own safety in mind when transporting your pet. Wounded animals often reflexively lash out with claws and teeth when they’re in pain.
“They don’t have a way of yelling out and saying, ‘That hurts.’ Their response is biting,” she says. “It’s not malicious, it just hurts and they’re communicating. But people need to be cautious.”
As a precaution, carry small dogs with a thick blanket, she says. For big dogs, she recommends using a muzzle to prevent being bitten when you’re moving them into the car. (It’s a good idea to get your dog used to a muzzle prior to an emergency situation, Dr. Lawson says.) If the muzzle is tight-fitting, remove it as soon as the animal is inside the vehicle so they don’t have difficulty panting to cool down. If it’s a basket muzzle, it can stay on until you arrive at the clinic.
How to Prepare for a Dog Emergency
It’s always better to be prepared for dog emergencies before they happen. Have the number for your local emergency hospital somewhere close at hand, like in your phone or on the refrigerator, Dr. Lawson says. It’s also wise to have the numbers for a poison-control provider such as ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center or the Pet Poison Helpline, police non-emergencies and animal control.
For putting together a first aid kid, Dr. Lawson recommends referencing the American Veterinary Medical Association’s pet first-aid checklist.
Her ideal first-aid kit would include, at minimum:
A purchased dog first aid kit will include many of these items, like the Kurgo Pet First Aid Kit, which comes with rubber gloves, gauze, scissors and more.
Pet first-aid and CPR classes are offered in many cities. Dr. Lawson recommends taking such a course, if available, to prepare for handling life-threatening emergencies.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is bloody diarrhea in dogs an emergency?
A:Bloody diarrhea in dogs is an emergency—sometimes. A lot of pets seen by Karl Jandrey, DVM, MAS, DACVECC, associate dean and associate professor of clinical surgical and radiological sciences, and a critical care specialist at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in California, come in because they have bloody diarrhea.
But not all of these situations are created equal. Small streaks of blood in diarrhea may be relatively inconsequential if the dog is otherwise “eating, drinking, playful and happy,” Dr. Jandrey says. Such cases are usually best handled by your regular vet rather than an emergency practitioner.
“They may have something as simple as parasitism, where these parasites are causing a little colitis or inflammation,” he says. “That would require some medication, maybe some diet modification. Because the animal still feels well, it might not even require medical attention.”
But he also sees animals with diarrhea seemingly entirely constituted of blood, or like “raspberry jam,” full of chunks that may be blood clots. In these worst-case scenarios, seek emergency care for your dog immediately.
“These most severe bloody diarrheas are accompanied by animals that are very lethargic, definitely not eating, not drinking, may have a fever, and are rapidly becoming dehydrated,” Dr. Jandrey says. “Then it may not be parasitism, but a very systemic problem.”
That could include an obstruction of the intestines due to a virus, intoxication from ingesting rat poison, or a bleeding disorder that won’t stop until the animal receives veterinary attention.
Is a dog vomiting blood an emergency?
A:Similar to bloody diarrhea, a dog vomiting blood could be an emergency, or just a symptom of minimal concern, depending on the severity.
“It’s not uncommon for a dog’s vomit to have a small streak of blood or a reddish or pinkish tint,” Dr. Jandrey says. “The animal could have ingested something, chewed on small rocks or sticks, creating an irritation that passes without a problem.”
Again, when symptoms become more severe, pet owners should consider seeking emergency services, he says. Always weigh your pet’s behaviorAre they acting normal? Are they happy? That will help indicate whether your dog is in slight discomfort or dire peril.
Is a dog peeing blood an emergency?
A:A dog peeing blood is usually not an emergency. The most common reasons for a dog to be urinating blood is a urinary tract infection or a bladder stone, Dr. Jandrey says.
Neither condition warrants an immediate visit to an emergency clinic, but they are extremely uncomfortable for the animal, he says. The pain may be accompanied by difficulty urinating, small, frequent urinations, or “inappropriate eliminations” inside the house.
“The reason to seek medical attention sooner is to eliminate the animal’s discomfort,” Dr. Jandrey says. “It’s not life-threatening.”
A severe bleeding disorder due to low platelets or ingesting rat poison is a more urgent concern. Such a condition would cause urine to appear more like Kool-Aid, or heavy and thick, like blood with a little urine mixed in, Dr. Jandrey says. In that case, getting to the emergency vet is imperative.
“If that horse has left the barn, you lose more ground the longer you wait,” he says. “You want to seek veterinary attention within the hour.”
Is a broken dog tooth an emergency?
A:Usually, a broken dog tooth is not an emergency. A broken tooth will usually bleed a little, but not to an extent where blood loss is life-threatening, Dr. Jandrey says. The more significant concern is whether the nerve endings inside the tooth have become exposed, which can be very painful.
“The emergency is to address the patient’s pain,” he says. “We see broken teeth on occasion, sometimes just a little fracture on the enamel of the tooth. If it’s a working dog that needs those teeth, we do restorative dentistry like root canals and caps long before we consider extracting the tooth.”
Nerve endings exposed over longer periods risk becoming infected, Dr. Jandrey says, which might not qualify as a lights-and-sirens emergency but remains a serious cause for concern. If the infection spreads to your dog’s jawbone, it could disintegrate and require amputation.
“Does a broken tooth mean you need to come see a veterinarian immediately? In general, I would say no. Do they need to see a veterinarian within the next day or two or three? Probably, yes,” Dr. Jandrey says.
Just don’t put it off for a week or longer. Your vet will have a better chance of restoring the tooth to functionality if you bring your dog to the clinic sooner rather than later.
Dog emergencies can take many forms. It’s impossible to anticipate every scenario, but you can take precautions and watch for abnormal behavior, which is always a warning sign. And don’t hesitate to get help from trained professionals whenever you’re in doubt about the health and safety of your dog.
“I would encourage people to reach out to their veterinarian or an emergency veterinarian if they are ever concerned,” Dr. Lawson says. “We advocate for people calling and asking. If you’re unsure, we’re happy to talk to you about whether it sounds like an emergency.”