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Pet Medical Emergencies

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Pet medical emergencies range from the trauma associated with a car accident, to poisoning, to internal problems such as an intestinal blockage.  Many pet emergencies happen suddenly and without warning, so it is important to be prepared. 

Although it isn’t possible to be prepared for anything and everything when it comes to pet emergencies, simple guidelines are useful in all emergencies:

  • Keep calm and try not to panic.  This is important for both you and your pet.
  • Contact your veterinarian or appropriate veterinary emergency service.  Explain what has happened to your pet, answer any questions, and follow the advice given.
  • Make sure that your pet is warm and resting quietly.  Keep movement to a minimum, especially if there is possible trauma, broken legs, or neurological problems.
  • Transport your pet safely to the vet as directed.  Drive carefully!


First aid is initial treatment given in a pet medical emergency.  The type of first aid needed depends on the type of injury.  Your vet can advise you on the particular type of first aid that may be needed based on your pet’s condition.  However, there are a few general things to keep in mind.


First, breathing is vital.  If necessary, clear your pet’s mouth and throat of any obstruction or foreign material (eg, vomit, leaves, etc) that might interfere with breathing.  Be very careful!  Any animal that is injured or in pain may bite out of reflex or panic.  If your pet is drooling or bleeding from the mouth, keep the head lower than the body so that fluid will run away from the mouth rather than back into the pet's throat.


Next, any serious bleeding should be controlled.  Apply steady pressure using a cloth or towel.  Do not dab or wipe at the wound.  Tape can be used to hold the cloth in place over a cut.  If bleeding from a leg is coming in spurts that rapidly soak through the cloth, you may need to apply a tourniquet using a cord or belt.  A veterinary professional can tell you if this is necessary and provide you with specific instructions.  In general, the tourniquet needs to be placed above the level of the wound (ie, closer to the body), and then tightened until the bleeding slows or stops.  Tourniquets must be loosened every 15 minutes or so, to allow blood flow back into the leg, and then retightened.  Heavy bleeding will generally require surgical treatment at the veterinary hospital.


In the case of suspected poisoning, do not induce vomiting unless specifically instructed to do so by a veterinary professional.  Take a sample of the ingested substance (or its container) with you to the vet.  Being able to identify the specific poison is often important in treatment.


Shock is often associated with emergency situations.  Signs of shock include rapid breathing or panting, pale gums, and cool paws.  Your pet may vomit or shiver, but many pets in shock are quiet and unresponsive.  Keep your pet as quiet as possible and try to conserve its body heat by covering it with bedding.  Then quickly get your pet to the veterinary hospital for needed treatment with intravenous fluids and other medications for shock.


Above all, remember not to panic and to get your pet to the veterinary hospital safely.

 

Q&A

What are the most important things to remember in an emergency?

It is important to keep calm and to get your pet to a veterinarian or emergency service quickly and safely. 


What is the main goal of first aid?

The goal is first and foremost to preserve life, so make sure that your pet is breathing properly.  Keep the mouth and throat clear of any obstruction or foreign material (eg, vomit, leaves, etc.) that might interfere with breathing, but be careful not to get bitten. 


How can I control bleeding while I take my pet to the veterinarian?

Bleeding can often be controlled by applying steady pressure with a cloth or towel.  Place a tourniquet only when there is severe bleeding that rapidly soaks the cloth (eg, spurting blood), but remember to loosen the tourniquet every 15 minutes or so. 


What is shock?

Shock represents a life-threatening fall in blood pressure that needs to be quickly corrected with intravenous fluids and special injections.  Signs of shock include rapid breathing, pale gums, and cool paws. 

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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