Dog Symptoms: When Is It an Emergency?

How can you tell whether your dog’s injury or illness calls for an emergency veterinary visit?

Dogs seem to get sick or injured at the worst possible times.  Of course this is not their fault, but nonetheless, it does often put owners in the position of having to decide whether an after-hours visit to the veterinarian is truly necessary.

Jana’s note: I can absolutely attest to that. Bad things do seem to consistently happen after hours, on the weekends or during holidays. That includes complications even from minor medical procedures. We made it a policy to always schedule thing for early in the week just because of that.

Dog Symptoms: When Is It an Emergency?

Visiting an emergency veterinary clinic is scary and costs are higher but …

This is not simply a matter of convenience.  Seeing a veterinarian on an emergency basis is not ideal.  Costs are generally higher and you will probably be dealing with a veterinarian who does not know you, your dog or have access to his medical records.  These concerns should never stop you from seeking veterinary attention when it is truly necessary, but under the right circumstances, waiting until you can see your regular veterinarian is better for everyone.

Jana’s note: This is more than anecdotal. The one time we had to take Jasmine to an emergency clinic turned out a complete horror. However, not seeking immediate veterinary attention would have cost her life.

If your dog is a victim of any of the conditions listed below, take him to the veterinarian immediately.

Even if your dog looks to be in relatively good shape, all of these conditions are potentially life-threatening and his condition could rapidly worsen.  Call the veterinary clinic to let them know you are on your way and to get advice about any first aid that you could provide.

Top 10 Emergency Conditions

  1. Any type of serious trauma (e.g., hit by a car, a fall from a moving vehicle, car accidents, gunshots or deep puncture wounds)
  2. Electrocution
  3. Difficulty giving birth
  4. Animal bites, including snake strikes by an unknown species
  5. Burns (chemical or thermal)
  6. Near drowning
  7. Smoke or carbon monoxide inhalation
  8. Obviously broken bones
  9. Exposure to extreme cold or hot temperatures
  10. Ingestion of a possible poison (including human and pet medications)

Confusion often arises, however, when an owner observes their dog’s symptoms but is unsure of the underlying cause.

The following clinical signs warrant an immediate call to a veterinarian no matter the time of day or night.

Top 10 Symptoms of an Emergency

  1. Difficulty breathing
  2. Severe pain in any part of the body
  3. Profuse vomiting, particularly associated with an inability to keep down water, blood in the vomit, depression or pain
  4. Profuse diarrhea
  5. Unsuccessful straining to urinate
  6. Repeated unsuccessful attempts at vomiting, especially if associated with an enlarged abdomen
  7. Seizures
  8. A severely depressed attitude or unresponsiveness
  9. Extreme weakness or wobbliness
  10. Large amounts of blood in the stool
  11. Collapse
  12. Bleeding that drips or pools (a “smear” here and there is probably not an emergency)

If you are unsure of your dog’s condition, it is always safer to make a phone call than to “wait and see.”  Talking to a veterinarian about your dog’s symptoms will certainly help you determine whether or not you need to bring him in immediately or if he can wait until your regular clinic is open for business.

Related articles:
Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog: The Big Picture

Further reading:
Canine Medical Emergencies and What to Do About Them

  1. After decades of pet ownership, I think I’m pretty confident in some self care, however I am for sure a better safe than sorry mom for some things!

    • Yes, there are things that a seasoned pet parent can take care of at home. It is also important to know when it’s important to see a vet too, though.

  2. You are so right in your quote…it does always seem to happen after hours! Why is that?! I have often wondered that. Which only adds to the stress worry whether to chance it a the ER clinic (which the one here is fine for some emergencies, but not for others, especially illnesses. My one visit when my epileptic dog was quite literally dying, bleeding internally from a ruptured tumor, but the on-call vet let him lie on the table, overheating, temperature dangerously high, semi-conscious while she was way too interested in studying the slides under a microscope of his blood, calling me over to leave my boy to look at the slides and how the blood was reacting. I needed to be at his side comforting him and needed her to do something to help him. I had to beg for cool packs and a fan, reiterating that he was an epileptic and would seizure if he wasn’t cooled down, and to please give him fluids via IV. No fluids…just a cool towel and fan and wheeled him into another room I believe for me to say goodbye. I was not having it. It was 2 AM and texted my own wonderful vet who immediately called to have them treat the symptoms until he could transferred to my vet a few hours later. It was horrifying to go through that. I know in my hearts had that happened during regular hours, he never would have gone through that with our vet team. Great article.

    • I really don’t know what it so often works out that way. Or maybe it doesn’t–maybe when it happens at a normal time, we see our vets and don’t have the same type of memory? Who knows.

      Wow, so horrible about your bleeding baby. Our experience with an ER was quite terrible too.

  3. You never want to see an emergency but they happen and very important to recognize.We have had one or two. Kilo got into chocolate when we first fostered him (we didn’t realize he could have made the NBA with his jumps). but ended up OK because we took very quick action.

    • All is well what ends well. We had a number of emergencies but had to use the ER with only one of them. Not a good experience, sadly.

  4. Marjorie Dawson

    Giving people a yardstick to judge how serious things might be is a good idea. People will have an idea and be less likely to panic won’t they?

  5. I’m still beating myself up over not taking Reese to emergency. She is a tough little cookie and was not displaying any obvious symptoms of cardiac arrest. The difficulty breathing would have given us a clue, if, she appeared to be having difficulty. Sadly, she just slowed down. The list you provided is a great resource.

    • Sorry about your baby. Sometimes dogs really hide when there is something wrong with them. It is also why slowing down, lethargy, reluctance to exercise all should be also investigated.

  6. dachshundstation

    Nice Article! The quote at the beginning of your article is so true.. all of my dog’s emergencies always happened after hours or on the weekends.. and Pet Emergencies fees are no fun! I appreciate the nice list of top 10 symptoms of emergencies.

  7. Thanks for sharing these important signs! We have two emergency clinics near us, one is great and the other one is more interested in making a profit. They use the emotional distress of their clients to their advantage. That being said, I would go to them again if the other one is too busy to see my dogs.

    • How lucky–to have two to pick from! Well, I am usually quite liberal when it comes to veterinary bills. I can see what might go into them. I believe that most clinics, ER or otherwise, bill what they have to for the upkeep and services provide.

      That said, there are some that pad the bills substantially. That is inexcusable.

      Yet, the bill from the ER was not my big problem–the horrible misdiagnosis was.

  8. Great post and I am blessed because if Layla seems off for some reason before I run to the vet I can email them and they will respond and tell me whether to bring her in or not, it saves stress and of course money

  9. Great post. I agree with all these tips. Also sometimes extreme lethargy or foul odor from the body may be a sign of something serious too. Sometimes this can be a sign of cancer in some pets.

    • Yes, absolutely. The difference between that and those on the list is the difference of having to go “right now” and can go “when the vet opens.”

  10. It can be surprisingly difficult to determine an emergency situation from a non-emergency situation with pets. I had a situation once where my cat had gotten caught in the mechanics under my recliner and I saw blood and rushed him to the emergency vet. It turned out that he had only cut a claw off below the quick, but I don’t regret taking his condition seriously. It could have been much worse and having it looked at calmed me down.

    • True. Sometimes things look like the end of the world and are not and sometimes they don’t look like much and are life-threatening. Another reasons people should buy my book 😉

  11. Great post! I was lucky that I avoided having to visit an emergency vet for years and years. Then last month my senior dog had some symptoms that worried me and I didn’t feel comfortable waiting until his regular vet opened. I actually lucked out, I found a local vet who was willing to see us after normal hours and he was SO good with my little one. So good, actually, that we ended up deciding to switch and use him as our regular vet. It’s comforting to know that he’s willing to address emergencies after hours so that we can stay local and go to a vet we’re familiar with rather than have to travel and see someone who’s never met my boy before.

    • That is a wonderful vet. There is one advantage to living in the middle of nowhere like we do–no emergency clinics. Instead, our clinic has an “on call” vet.

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