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  • Writer's picturemichael raff

What To Do In a Pet Emergency

Discovering our beloved dog traumatically injured or very sick is a nightmare that most of us don’t want to ponder. However, it is important to plan ahead and prepare for this scenario so that you know what steps you need to take to get your dog the care he or she needs.

What constitutes an emergency?

Just like with humans, there are vital functions that when not working properly constitute an emergency. Think of the ABCs: Airway, Breathing, Circulation. These are all essential for your dog to survive.

  • Airway - check your dog’s mouth and throat. Is there an object (food, bone, piece of toy) stuck in their mouth or throat and preventing them from breathing freely? If so, and you are unable to remove the object, rush your dog to the nearest vet.

  • Breathing - Is your dog able to take in oxygen to their lungs? If they were hit by a car or took a big fall or they are having an allergic reaction to something, they may not be able to properly inhale oxygen to their lungs. If you suspect your dog is not able to breathe properly this is an immediate vet visit.

  • Circulation - your dog’s body circulates oxygenated blood to every cell in it. If your dog has a heart or lung issue that is impeding it from getting oxygenated blood to the whole body or if your dog has a massive bleeding wound, this requires immediate attention. If you can, stop the bleeding with direct pressure on the wound and keep it in place while you transport your dog to the vet. If you know how to check for a pulse and perform CPR if needed, do that and rush your dog to the vet.

To better think situations through, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) lists these as true pet emergencies that require a veterinary visit:

  1. Severe bleeding or bleeding that doesn't stop within five minutes

  2. Choking, difficulty breathing or nonstop coughing and gagging

  3. Bleeding from nose, mouth, rectum, coughing up blood, or blood in urine

  4. Inability to urinate or pass feces (stool), or obvious pain associated with urinating or passing stool

  5. Injuries to your pet's eye(s)

  6. You suspect or know your pet has eaten something poisonous (such as antifreeze, xylitol, chocolate, rodent poison, etc.)

  7. Seizures and/or staggering

  8. Fractured bones, severe lameness or inability to move leg(s)

  9. Obvious signs of pain or extreme anxiety

  10. Heat stress or heatstroke

  11. Severe vomiting or diarrhea – more than two episodes in a 24-hour period, or either of these combined with obvious illness or any of the other problems listed here

  12. Refusal to drink for 24 hours or more

  13. Unconsciousness

Preparing Ahead of Time

  • Prepare in advance to be able to recognize and handle emergency situations.

  • Think about what emergencies might be most likely given your breed or your particular dog (their behaviors, age, etc.).

  • Have emergency information (see below) and trusted friends contact information at your fingertips.

  • Consider taking an online or in person pet first aid training.

  • Read through some emergency situation guidelines so you know what to look for and how to treat immediate issues until you can transport your dog to the vet.

    1. The American Red Cross offers a 35-minute online course on pet first aid.

    2. The American Red Cross also offers a free Pet First Aid App that you can put on your phone for quick and easy reference.

    3. Veterinary Partner is a solid online resource on signs of and how to handle a multitude of common pet emergencies.

Emergency Information

In addition to getting some basic training on how to handle a pet emergency it is a good idea to prepare some resources in advance. This is especially important before leaving your dog in the care of a pet sitter or boarding facility. Be sure to include this essential information:

  1. Dog’s name, breed, age and birthdate, sex (neutered or intact), current medications, known health conditions

  2. Primary Veterinarian phone, address, business hours. It is important to check with your primary vet in advance to see what emergency or urgent care they can provide. Your vet may tell you that your pet needs to go straight to an emergency vet for any unscheduled visits.

  3. Emergency Veterinarian phone, address, business hours

  4. Create a letter of authorization for care to leave with any pet sitters or pet care facility so that they can present it to a veterinary office in case of an emergency. You can find several sample letters online by searching “sample authorization to provide emergency pet care”.

  5. ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center 24 hour hotline: 1 (888) 426-4435

None of us wants to imagine being in an emergency situation with our dog, but it is so much better to think it through and prepare in advance so that you are ready and able to handle a stressful scenario when your dog needs you most. If you start to panic in an emergency, remember to call a trusted friend or family member who can help talk you through the steps you need to take to determine what care your pet needs. It can be incredibly helpful to have the support and perspective of someone who is not in the emergency and can help keep you calm. Knowing what constitutes an emergency versus needing to make an appointment to see a vet soon is an important determination for you to be able to make for your dog’s well being, and in an emergency situation, to their survival.

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