Important Warning Signs Requiring a Veterinary Visit
by Dr. Dana Koch published March 16, 2015
Recognizing when to take your beloved canine/feline to the veterinary office, especially during the weekends or overnight can be a challenging decision to make. There are some crucial warning signs that can help a conscientious pet owner make choice to seek out emergency veterinary care:
- Difficulty breathing
Difficulty breathing, also referred to as dyspnea, is a medical emergency. Your pet can display clinical signs such as wheezing, choking sounds or open mouthed breathing. The causes for dyspnea can be related to a foreign body lodged in the throat, a severe allergic reaction, a lung condition or heart disease. Evaluating your pet’s gums is an important way to access for adequate oxygenation. The gums should be pink and moist and when pressed should temporarily change white then within a second or two go back to pink – this is referred to as a capillary refill time. If your pet’s gums are pale, white, blue or grey this should indicate an emergency. It would be a good idea to check your pet’s gums before an emergency occurs in order to know what is normal for your pet.
- Decline in appetite
Inappetance or a lack of appetite over the course of 24 hours may not indicate a serious concern, but after the 24 hour period a pet owner should consider seeking veterinary care. A pet may indicate a debilitating illness or condition to their owner by refusing food. This can also lead to serious dehydration and lethargy. In cats, anorexia can lead to a life-threatening condition called hepatic lipidosis. A cat’s body functions differently during periods of starvation compared to a dog or human body in which fat stores are processed to be utilized as energy. In the cat body the fat stores are not converted in the same manner, but instead they are released to the liver and accumulate causing a fatty and low functioning liver. If this is left untreated it can result in a non-functioning liver and possible death.
- Changes in drinking and urinating habits
The inability to urinate is considered a medical emergency because it can indicate a urinary blockage exists. Pet owners may often observe increased drinking or urination in their pets. This can be caused by several conditions including a urinary tract infection, urinary stones or an endocrine disorder such as diabetes or hypo/hyperthyroidism. A urinary tract infection or urinary stones may not be life-threatening, but if left untreated can result in serious complications. It is best to seek veterinary care as soon as possible.
If you pet has intermittent or occasional vomiting this is not considered a medical emergency. Your pet may have eaten something that upset his or her gastrointestinal tract. If the vomiting begins to occur more frequently or multiple times in a row then immediate veterinary attention is recommended. If blood is observed in the vomit this is also a serious medical condition that requires emergency care. Vomiting can indicate a foreign body blockage, trauma to the lungs or heart, reactions to a toxin or medications, or an irritation to the lining of the esophagus, stomach or gastrointestinal tract. Prolonged vomiting can lead to life-threatening dehydration.
Similar to vomiting intermittent diarrhea is not generally a medical emergency, but prolonged changes in your pet’s stool can be an indicator of any underlying medical issue. Changes in color or consistency can give a pet owner cause for alarm. Melena or blood in the stool of your pet can indicate an infection, an obstruction in the gastrointestinal tract, gastric ulcers, or hemorrhage in the stomach or intestines, among other causes. Diarrhea can also be caused by changes in diet, dehydration or intestinal parasites.
One single seizure is not likely to be life threatening, but with a sudden onset and the potential for clustering or multiple seizures to occur it is often best to seek medical attention in these cases. Seizures can be caused by several underlying issues including, electrolyte imbalance, metabolic conditions, toxin ingestion, a brain mass, or epilepsy. Seeking veterinary advice is important in order to stop the pet from seizing, to understand the underlying cause for the condition, and to potentially treat or provide further seizures from occurring in the future.
- Collapse or Lethargy
If your pet has an episode of collapse this is a major problem and requires immediate medical attention. The potential underlying causes for collapse can be related to internal bleeding, anaphylactic shock related to a toxin or allergic response, a serious heart condition, dehydration, hypoglycemia, or metabolic disturbances such as a condition cause Addison’s disease.
There are various levels of lethargy that may be represented by prolonged periods of sleeping, disinterest in playing with toys or interacting with owners, a lessened desire to go for walks, or hiding in unusual places. If these clinical signs last for more than 24-48 hours a veterinary visit is recommended.
- Abdominal distension or pain
Another serious warning sign of a medical emergency is a distended abdomen. If your pet is displaying this clinical sign or appears to be painful/vocalizing when you feel his or her abdomen then seek a veterinary evaluation as soon as possible. Abdominal distension can sometimes indicate a serious condition called gastric dilation-volvulus, also known as bloat. In this condition the stomach actually twists over itself creating a complete obstruction. Other possible causes include internal bleeding (ruptured spleen) or fluid distension from heart disease.
- Paralysis of legs
If you pet sudden has difficulty or is unable to use one or more of his or her legs this then this is generally a medical emergency. This can indicate a herniation in a portion of the spinal cord, which is often extremely painful. Diagnosing and treating this condition as soon as possible can greatly improve the prognosis and outcome. Often dogs with longer bodies, such as Dachshunds and Corgis are predisposed to this particular condition. Paralysis can also indicate a neurologic condition leading to changes in your pet’s mentation. It is important to observe for incoordination, lethargy, rapid eye movement (referred to as nystagmus), or a lack of alertness or response to sounds/verbal cues. If you sense a sudden change in your pet’s mental status seeking immediate veterinary attention is recommended.
- Eye emergencies
Eye problems should not be ignored because they escalate to have more serious consequences compared to other areas of the body. A small amount of ocular discharge is not alarming but when the eye appears extremely red, is bulging out of the socket, has excessive tearing or swelling then a veterinary visit is highly encouraged. A red eye can indicate a viral or bacterial infection, trauma, corneal hemorrhage or conditions such as hypertension and glaucoma. If left untreated a loss of vision can be a serious consequence.