The 411 on Your 911
An unexpected development of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the dramatic increase in the request for veterinary services. General practices are unable to take on new clients. Specialty referral practices are booked solid for months. Emergency hospitals have waiting times of six to eight hours. I have even heard reports of emergency hospitals temporarily closing their doors and refusing to take in additional emergency cases.
Along with the increased demand for veterinary care, staffing shortages are another reason why you may have a problem having your dog seen by a veterinarian. The long hours, difficult clients and lack of skilled support staff are driving many veterinarians from the field.
We all love our dogs and want the best medical care for them, so how do we determine what is a true emergency that requires immediate care as opposed to a problem that can wait to be seen? The following is a list of conditions (not in order of urgency) that need to be seen by a veterinarian right away.
Choking, difficulty breathing, or nonstop gagging and coughing can be signs of respiratory distress. Breathing fast is different than difficulty breathing or respiratory distress. One is an emergency and one may not be.
An elevated respiratory rate or panting can happen if a dog is excited, nervous or following exercise. Respiratory distress means that the act of breathing is difficult. Your dog may be reluctant to move, and you may hear wheezing and whining as your dog attempts to breathe.
If your dog is working hard to breathe but is not able to get sufficient oxygen, his gums will be pale or blue tinged. He may extend his neck or sit up with both front legs extended to maximize the amount of air taken in with each breath.
Abdominal breathing is the term for when both sides of the stomach are moving in and out forcibly while breathing. This is a sign of severe respiratory distress and dangerously decreased lung capacity.
There is a wide range of reasons for respiratory distress. Objects lodged in the throat, heart and lung disease, trauma to the chest, laryngeal paralysis and allergic reactions are just a few. Anytime your dog’s breathing is compromised, you need to seek immediate veterinary care.
Any type of bleeding that does not stop within five minutes should be examined, especially if there is bleeding from the nose, mouth, rectum, coughing up blood or blood in the urine. Any wound that goes all the way through the skin where underlying muscle tissue, tendons or nerves are visible needs to be examined promptly.
On your way to the emergency hospital, you can apply direct pressure on the wound with a clean towel, gauze pad or a feminine napkin to stop the bleeding. Do not keep lifting the material covering the wound, or it will disrupt the clotting process. If the blood soaks through, just keep adding more material and pressure.
The use of a tourniquet is potentially dangerous and should only be applied in cases of life-threatening hemorrhage on a leg. If you see blood spurting from a wound, you can employ this technique. Use a towel, piece of cloth or leash, and wrap it around the limb once or twice, just above the wound, and tie it into a knot. You should loosen the tourniquet every five minutes for 15 seconds because leaving it on too long can cut off the blood supply to the entire limb. A tourniquet should only be used as a last resort if you are more than 15 minutes from emergency care and there is blood spurting from the wound. If the tourniquet is improperly applied or left in place too long, it can cause permanent damage and result in the need to amputate the limb.
Severe vomiting, diarrhea or straining to vomit or defecate are signs of serious illness. Puppies, especially, can quickly become dehydrated from repeated episodes of vomiting and/or diarrhea. They may have swallowed something that has obstructed their gastrointestinal tract or may have contracted a serious infectious disease like parvovirus.
A tense, distended abdomen accompanied by repeated retching are symptoms of bloat, also known as gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV). This is a serious condition that mainly affects large breed, deep-chested dogs like Great Danes, German Shepherds, Irish Setters, Greyhounds and Doberman Pinschers.
Gastric dilatation refers to when the stomach fills with air and compresses the other internal organs. Volvulus is the term for when the stomach or intestine rotates out of position and twists on itself. This cuts off the blood supply to the rest of the intestines, with disastrous results. If you think your dog is bloating, get your dog to a veterinarian ASAP. Any delay can be the difference between life and death.
At the veterinary hospital, they will take radiographs to confirm the GDV and try to pass a stomach tube. If the tube does not pass, emergency surgery is required to reposition the organs and relieve the bloat. High-risk breeds should consider having a prophylactic gastropexy, or stomach tack, at a young age. This procedure fixes the stomach to the body wall so the organ cannot twist and allows a bloat to be decompressed with a stomach tube.
Seizures are terrifying to watch. Although the violent muscle contractions look bad, the dog is oblivious to them. There are many causes of seizures, such as epilepsy, poisoning, low blood sugar, liver shunts, brain tumors and even infections.
A single seizure is not usually a problem. A cluster of seizures is when the seizures continue one after another. This can cause overheating and even death. If your dog has a single seizure, you can monitor him at home and notify your veterinarian. If he has a second seizure on the same day, then take him directly to the emergency hospital in case more seizures are coming.
If your dog is squinting or keeping one or both eyes closed, prompt treatment can be the difference between losing sight and retaining vision. Always consider eye problems as an emergency.
Some poisons or toxins may cause minor digestive upset, while others can be lethal if not treated immediately. If you see your dog ingest a toxin, call your veterinarian or emergency clinic and ask for their advice. They will let you know right away if the toxin ingested is something to be concerned about. You can also call a poison-control hotline for assistance. There is often a fee for poison-control hotline services, but well worth it for the information.
Be sure to take the container the toxin was in with you when you go to the vet, or snap a photo of the ingredient label to show them. This really facilitates the process by not wasting time guessing what the toxin might be. Bring a sample of the vomit, if your dog is vomiting, to help your veterinarian identify the toxin.
Do not attempt to induce vomiting with hydrogen peroxide unless directed to by your veterinarian or the poison-control hotline. Too much peroxide can cause problems like aspiration pneumonia or stomach ulcerations. Also, some toxins can do more damage coming back up.
The common dog toxicities that require emergency care are chocolate, OTC and prescription medications, grapes, xylitol, Gorilla Glue, rodenticides and cleaning products. Many plants, including Jerusalem cherry and Sago palm, are poisonous if eaten.
Fortunately, most allergic reactions in dogs are mild and not life threatening. They may cause itchiness and mild swelling of the eyes or face. However, dogs can have severe anaphylactic reactions, just like people, and these can be fatal. These reactions are usually the result of bee or wasp stings, spider bites, medications or vaccines.
Signs of an allergic reaction include facial swelling, pale gums, trouble breathing, collapse and even seizures. A true anaphylactic reaction requires immediate attention by your veterinarian or the ER.
While this list isn’t all inclusive, it gives you a good general idea of the main reasons to go to the emergency veterinarian. If you are in doubt if immediate care is needed, ask yourself if a human toddler had the same symptoms, would you be on your way to the hospital? If the answer is “yes,” your dog should be seen right away.