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How to Handle a Pet Emergency

Dog in a pet emergency room
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A pet emergency is every dog and cat parent’s worst nightmare. According to CNBC, one-third of pets will experience an emergency each year (1). 

With proper prevention, preparation, quick identification of signs of an emergency, and prompt action, you can help provide the best possible outcome for your pet if an emergency occurs. 

What Is a Pet Emergency?

If you notice that your dog or cat is exhibiting abnormal behavior or signs of illness, if you observe an injury, or if you notice your pet ate something toxic, emergency pet care is required by a veterinarian. While some milder illnesses and injuries can probably wait to be treated by your regular veterinarian during normal office hours, more severe issues constitute a true emergency and require prompt treatment—no matter the time of day or night. 

If ever in doubt, you can always call your regular veterinarian or emergency vet for advice. Don’t wait too long or assume these problems will go away on their own. 

Below are some situations that likely require emergency veterinary care in comparisons to symptoms that are more often not an immediate emergency.

Pet Emergencies That Require Immediate Care What Can Probably Wait Until Tomorrow
Severe vomiting or diarrhea—especially if the vomit or stool is black or bloody or is accompanied by severe abdominal pain, if your pet has a pre-existing condition (such as chronic kidney disease, diabetes mellitus, or hypoadrenocorticism), or if you have a young/unvaccinated puppy. Mild, infrequent vomiting or diarrhea in an otherwise healthy adult dog or cat
Abdominal distension, retching, and difficulty breathing—particularly in a large breed dog, as these could be signs of gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV), or bloat.
Difficulty breathing, labored breathing, rapid breathing, gasping, choking, severe coughing, or if a cat starts panting like a dog—especially if your pet has a pre-existing cardiac or respiratory condition. Mild sneezing or coughing.
Inability to urinate; straining or vocalizing in pain during repeated attempts to urinate or defecate; blood in the urine. Small urinary accidents in the house without straining.
Trauma including being hit by car, an attack by a dog or other animal, blunt force trauma, fall from a great height or down a staircase, gunshot wound, etc.

Keep in mind that even if wounds are not visible, your pet may have sustained severe internal injuries.

Broken tooth (so long as there is no other facial or oral trauma).
Severe limping; inability to stand, walk, or move; paralysis; open fracture; limb held at an odd angle; severe sudden pain or anxiety. Mild or occasional limping or stiffness.
Excessive bleeding that does not resolve within 5 minutes; deep, penetrating wound (especially to the head, chest, or abdomen) or wound with a protruding foreign body; bleeding from the nose, mouth, or rectum. Small cut or scrape; broken nail with bleeding that resolves within 5 minutes.
Seizures or convulsions.
Severely lethargic, unresponsive, unconscious, collapse, fainting.
Blue gums, white/very pale gums, or bright or brick red gums.
Refusal to drink water for over 24 hours. Decreased appetite (without the presence of other signs of illness).
Eye injury – especially if associated with a penetrating foreign body, squinting, bleeding, or protruding of the eyeball.
Aural hematoma (blood-filled blister on the ear) or ear infection that results in vomiting, dizziness, or the inability to stand. Mild ear infection.
Severe allergic or anaphylactic reaction in response to a bee sting, insect bite, recent vaccination, etc. – hives, facial swelling, difficulty breathing, vomiting or diarrhea. Mild swelling at the site of a bee sting or insect bite.
Venomous snake bite.  
Toxin ingestion (such as toxic human foods, toxic plants, medications, household cleaners, marijuana, rat bait, snail bait, fertilizer, or antifreeze).  
Foreign body ingestion – especially sharp objects such as glass or needles, or if you observe a string extending from your pet’s mouth or rectum (Don’t pull!)  
Vaginal discharge, vomiting, or lethargy in an unspayed/intact female dog or cat (could be signs of pyometra, a uterine infection).  
Difficulty during labor or delayed whelping in a pregnant dog or pregnant cat: green vaginal discharge, severe vaginal bleeding, high body temperature over 103ºF, unproductive and intense contractions lasting over 20 minutes in a dog or 10 minutes in a cat without birthing, continued laboring without birthing (over 2 hours in a dog, over 20 minutes in a cat).  
Postpartum issues: mastitis, convulsions in the mother (could be a sign of eclampsia), or a newborn puppy or kitten that is weak and unresponsive.  
Uterine or rectal prolapse.  
Heat stroke (high body temperature, panting, bright red or dark gums, dry tongue, seizure or stupor, bloody vomit or diarrhea) or hypothermia (low body temperature).
Scalding, thermal or chemical burn, smoke inhalation, electrocution.  
Near drowning or aspiration.  

*Note: The above chart is for educational purposes only. You know what is right for your pet. If you believe your pet is in pain, extreme discomfort, or distress, contact or visit an emergency veterinary hospital or clinic. 

Who to Call During a Pet Emergency

pet owner calling pet emergency clinic

Knowing who to call if your pet is experiencing an emergency is critical. Have these numbers on hand and use them if your dog or cat is showing signs of distress:

Your Regular Veterinary Clinic

Call your regular general practitioner veterinarian if your pet experiences an emergency during regular office hours or if your veterinarian has an on-call service for after-hour emergencies. 

Your Local Emergency Pet Hospital

If an emergency occurs when your regular veterinarian is closed (such as in the middle of the night or on a weekend), call your closest 24/7 emergency animal hospital (ideally, within a 30 to 60-minute drive). If you live in a city with a veterinary school teaching hospital, you may wish to call its emergency service.

Pet Poison Control Hotline

If your dog or cat ingests a known or suspected toxin, you can call a pet poison helpline, such as the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) at 888-426-4435. Veterinary toxicologists are available around-the-clock at the APCC. For a consult fee, you may inquire whether your pet ate enough of a poisonous substance to require further veterinary care. The APCC can also advise you on any at-home treatments to try or whether to seek immediate treatment at an emergency pet clinic. Remember, unless otherwise instructed by a veterinarian, never induce vomiting in your pet!

How to Prepare for a Pet Emergency

pet first aid kit

Follow these steps to prepare for an emergency well before your pet ever has the chance to experience one.

Keep Emergency Contacts Handy

Store the phone number and address of your regular veterinary clinic and nearest emergency animal hospital into your cell phone, and make a copy to display on your refrigerator or other safe place. Familiarize yourself with these locations.

Schedule Regular Vet Checks

Practice prevention with regular veterinary check-ups, vaccines, and parasite prevention. Also, discuss the benefits of spaying or neutering your pet with your veterinarian. You’ll save money in the long run by protecting the wellbeing of your pet and helping to prevent minor injuries and illnesses.

Create a Pet Emergency Kit

Keep a folder with your dog or cat’s most up-to-date medical and vaccine records, microchip number, and list of any medications. In the same location, store items you may need in a hurry, including your pet carrier or leash, a muzzle, a blanket, and pet pads or litter box.

Brush Up on Toxic Foods and Substances

Practice safety with a refresher on toxic human foods (like chocolate, onions, xylitol, grapes and raisins) and household plants toxic to pets (such as lilies in cats or cycad palms). Tidy up to prevent the possibility that your pet swallows a foreign body or other dangerous substance. Avoid the use of rat and snail bait, and clean up any spilled antifreeze around your automobile. Store all drugs safely to prevent an accidental overdose. 

Always Supervise Your Pet

Never leave your pet in a hot car, keep your dog on a leash during walks to prevent a road accident, and always supervise your pets when interacting with other animals to prevent bites or attacks.

Have a Pet First Aid Kit

Having a pet-specific first aid kit handy is important if something happens. Your kit should contain the following:

  • Gauze pads and bandages
  • Medical tape
  • Medical scissors
  • Disposable gloves
  • Cotton swabs
  • Tweezers
  • Hydrogen peroxide 3%
  • Alcohol wipes
  • Antibacterial spray or ointment
  • Styptic powder or sticks for broken nails
  • Saline eye flush
  • Ice pack
  • Towels and washcloths
  • Digital thermometer

Learn Pet CPR

Sign up for a pet CPR course and Heimlich maneuver training, as offered by the American Red Cross.

Keep a Pet Emergency Fund

Start preparing financially for a pet emergency even before you acquire a new dog or cat. According to Petplan Pet Insurance, the average pet emergency costs at least $800-$1,500, and only 39 percent of American pet parents have enough savings to cover a $1,000 bill. Invest in pet medical insurance and/or emergency pet insurance (which reimburse for certain pet services), and start a savings account specifically for your pet’s medical care (even if you only invest a little at a time).

What to Do During a Pet Emergency 

Cat receiving emergency care

Try to remain calm during a pet emergency so that you may act as quickly as possible. These steps can help you navigate an emergency situation with your dog or cat 

Step 1: Before leaving your home, call your regular veterinary clinic or local emergency animal hospital to ask for any at-home advice and let them know you are on your way.

Step 2: In case of specific emergencies, your veterinarian may advise you to perform the following before or during your journey to the pet emergency room:

  • Bleeding: Apply firm pressure or a bandage to the wound. Only use a tourniquet if instructed by your vet.
  • Seizure: Cushion your pet’s head and avoid being bitten.
  • Heat stroke: Move your pet to a cool location and offer cool water. Apply cool (not cold) water to your pet’s paw pads and body.
  • Choking: Carefully try to sweep the back of your pet’s throat or firmly pat his or her back to attempt to dislodge a foreign object. Take care to avoid bites.
  • Poison ingestion: Call your vet or a pet poison control hotline for advice. As mentioned, never induce vomiting in your pet unless directed by a veterinary professional.
  • Unconsciousness: Only perform CPR if you are trained.

Step 3: Until you are ready to depart, put your dog or cat in a secure location (such as a bathroom) if he or she is at risk of running away and hiding, which could delay treatment.

Step 4: Gather your pet emergency kit, cell phone, and wallet. Also collect anything else you may think could be helpful to your vet, such as the medication bottle, plant, or a sample of any other foreign substance your pet was eating.

Step 5: Program the route to the veterinary hospital into your GPS.

Step 6: Safely load your pet into your vehicle. If your pet is scared or in pain, the natural instinct may be to bite, so be careful and use a dog muzzle to lift your dog if needed, removing the muzzle once your dog is in the car. Avoid muzzling if your pet has difficulty breathing or is a brachycephalic, or flat-faced, breed. A towel or blanket may be gently wrapped around an angry cat to more easily transport. Always place your cat in a carrier. In case of a suspected spinal injury, take special care to support your pet’s back and neck.

Step 7: During your ride to the pet hospital, keep your pet as calm and comfortable as possible while they are secured to the backseat or in a carrier. If you are the driver, stay safe and focus on the road. Only 16 percent of people use proper pet restraints while driving. Beat those statistics by using the proper equipment to keep you and your pet safe.

Step 8: Upon your arrival to the pet emergency room, carefully lift or carry your pet from your vehicle. If you need assistance moving a heavy dog, call the emergency vet receptionist to ask for staff to assist with a stretcher or gurney.

Tips for the Pet Emergency Room

Woman waiting with dog in pet emergency room

The pet emergency room can be a scary and overwhelming place, especially if your pet is injured or in distress. Do your best to remain calm and follow these tips to make the check-in and waiting process and stress-free as possible.

Check In

When you check in with the receptionist, try to remain calm to succinctly explain the situation to the receptionist. Hand over your pet’s medical records. Don’t leave the building until you are seen, and then remain nearby with your cell phone charged in case your vet needs to reach you. 

Research Financial Assistance

Pet emergencies can be very expensive. If you think you will need financial assistance, ask what methods of payment are accepted. While you are waiting to be seen, begin to scout out financial options. 

Remain Calm 

Meditate, eat a snack, or otherwise try to take your mind off your worries. Avoid amplifying your own anxiety by refraining from reading online forums about what could be wrong with your pet. Our pets can sense our stress, so try to remain calm for their sake. 

Keep Your Pet Relaxed

Move to a quiet corner of the waiting room, and speak to your dog or cat in a gentle, low tone to keep him or her tranquil and still. Stroke your pet softly if tolerated; otherwise, give your pet some space and allow them to relax on a blanket or in a carrier. Ask the veterinary staff if you may offer your pet some water. If you have a nervous cat, ask for a cat-only waiting area or for a pheromone spray, such as Feliway.

Be Prepared for a Long Wait

You may be in the pet emergency room for several hours, depending on how busy it is and how many pets are in the care of the emergency staff. Upon your arrival, your pet will be triaged, meaning a veterinarian or technician will assess the severity of your pet’s problem to gauge the order patients should be seen. Life-threatening problems are treated first, followed by less critical concerns. A nurse may first obtain your dog or cat’s history and check vital signs before you see the veterinarian. 

Be Kind and Respectful

Emotions are high when our pets are sick, but it’s important to treat veterinary staff with respect and kindness. They genuinely care about your pet’s wellbeing and are working hard to care for multiple animals at their hospital. Be upfront and open with veterinary nurses and your emergency vet about finances, and explain truthfully what happened to your pet and for how long the problem has been going on. Be aware that at any time during your appointment, your veterinary doctor may be called away to a more pressing matter. Please be understanding and realize the doctors are doing everything they can to save the lives of all pets in their care and making decisions accordingly. 

Prepare for the Possibility of Hospitalization or Extended Treatment

During your visit, your pet may undergo a series of diagnostic tests, and results may take a while. If your pet is able to come home, ask about any home care or rechecks. However, keep in mind that the ER’s main goal is to stabilize your pet, so your pet may require hospitalization at the emergency pet clinic or else be transferred to your regular veterinarian the next day for follow-up care. Your dog or cat may even be referred to a veterinary specialist for a more advanced workup or surgery. 

Pet Emergency Costs and How to Pay

Woman paying for pet emergency

While preparation is key in planning for a trip to the pet emergency room, the unexpected can still catch us off-guard financially. Emergency pet services, like in human medicine, are generally more expensive than services provided at a general veterinary practice due to more frequent patient monitoring and treatments, the stocking of special life-saving drugs, the cost of emergency medical equipment, and extra training of many emergency vets and staff. In order to remain open to continue to help animals, pet ER clinics must charge appropriately for their services. 

The below chart shows average costs of certain emergency pet services. Keep in mind that the prices for these services vary by geographic location and clinic type. Pet insurance can help cover the costs of emergency services, tests, and procedures. 

Type of Pet Emergency Service Cost
Emergency exam fee $100-$150
Basic blood work $100-$200
Urinalysis $25-$50
Radiographs/X-rays $100-$350
Abdominal ultrasound (sonogram) $200-$500
Echocardiogram (heart ultrasound) $300-$500
CT scan (or CAT scan) or MRI $1,500-$3,000
Blood pressure measurement $40-$75
Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) $25-$50
IV catheter and fluids $110-$150
Pain medications $40-$80
Other medications $50-$150
Anesthesia and surgery Hundreds of dollars – Thousands of dollars
Hospitalization and monitoring $50-$200

The costs of common veterinary emergencies differ based on the type and severity of injury or illness sustained. For example:

Type of Pet Emergency Cost
Gastrointestinal upset $500-$2,000
Gastric dilatation volvulus (GDV) surgery $3,000-$8,000
Congestive heart failure (CHF) $1,500-$2,500
Toxicity $500-$5,000
Hit by car $500-$8,000
Heat stroke $1,500-$6,000
Dog attack $1,000-$8,000
Urinary tract obstruction $1,500-$3,000
Pyometra $1,000-$5,000
Caesarean section $1,500-$3,500

In addition to a savings account and medical and emergency pet insurance, other financial options do exist. However, not all are accepted by every pet clinic, so inquire early on and plan on providing full payment (or at least a deposit in some circumstances) before you leave the pet emergency room after your pet’s visit. 

Other financial options for covering pet emergencies include:

  • Monetary loan from a family member
  • Third-party payment plans (require pre-approval and are subject to your credit score): CareCredit, Scratchpay, Wells Fargo Health Advantage Veterinary Client Financing
  • Crowdsourcing: GoFundMe, Waggle
  • Payment plan: Certain clinics may allow you to set up a plan to pay in installments, particularly if you have a preexisting relationship with them.
  • Charitable services: Some emergency pet hospitals and veterinary schools have charitable compassion funds for low-income clients.
  • Various assistance funds on a state or national level are also available for certain services, as listed on the website for The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

Pet Emergencies: Better to Be Prepared

Hopefully, your dog or cat will never have to face an emergency. However, by following these steps and quickly recognizing an emergency condition in your dog or cat, you can implement a calm and prompt strategy to make an emergency less frightening for everyone—and hopefully improve your pet’s outcome in the process.