When to Head to the Emergency Clinic

By: Heather McCauley, DVM

TVMA Member
Rockwall, TX

Published June 2014

It’s 3 a.m., and your four-legged best friend isn’t feeling right. Can this wait until morning? There are no hard and fast rules.

Minor lameness, one episode of vomiting or diarrhea, frequent urination, excessive licking or scratching, ear infections, non-painful lumps, scooting—these are signs of medical problems that need veterinary attention as soon as possible but probably not in the middle of the night!

An animal who is resting comfortably, whose gums are warm, moist and pink and who is otherwise normal is less likely get into trouble over the next few hours than the pet that is edgy, breathing rapidly or too quiet, sluggish, withdrawn, even cold or pale.

The most important fact is this: It is impossible to make an accurate diagnosis over the phone or from the internet. The safest choice is a visit to the nearest ER facility.

Most pet owners can tell the obvious danger signals like bleeding, labored breathing, bloody vomiting or diarrhea, seizures and collapse or ingesting a poison.

 But some signs are subtle, including:

  • Frequent urination may be a simple bladder infection or a more serious urinary blockage.
  • Trauma (dog fights, car accidents) can leave the smallest of punctures or no marks at all but have severe internal injuries. Animals with fractured spines can sometimes still walk.
  • Restlessness may mean heart failure, back pain or abdominal discomfort.
  • Serious blood disorders can produce wide purple patches or tiny, pinpoint speckles, visible only on the belly, inner flaps of the ears, whites of the eyes or the gums.
  • Ingestion of some ordinary but toxic foods like onions, garlic, macadamia nuts, raisins and grapes needs immediate attention. These are just a few of the troublesome treats.
  • An eye that turns white, blue or red or an animal that tears, squints or rubs at the eye needs prompt attention. Glaucoma can cause blindness in eight hours while corneal ulcers are painful and can cause loss of the eye itself.
  • Respiratory distress may not look obvious at first. The pet “works” at breathing using more abdominal effort, may grunt, breathe more quickly and more shallowly or sit with its head and neck extended, elbows spread, eventually panting or open-mouth breathing. This is especially life-threatening in the cat. Transport to an emergency clinic immediately, minimizing stress and handling.
  • Hives, particularly if accompanied by vomiting or diarrhea and swelling of the eyes or lips, indicate an allergic reaction in progress.
  • A dog retching unproductively may be developing a bloated or twisted stomach..

Know the location and number of the nearest animal ER and your veterinarian’s emergency policies. Call ahead for instructions, and if you must wait for a call back, stay off the line you have given as your callback number. Once you arrive, expect that patients will be seen in order of urgency, not arrival time. There may be critical patients in the treatment area, and this may contribute to your wait. Bring any recent lab reports, records, prescription medicines and supplements. For possible poisonings, bring the suspected package or brand and list of ingredients, if possible.

Emergency clinics are fully staffed during the wee hours and holidays and stocked with expensive and unusual drugs that may be needed only once in a while but may pull somebody’s four-legged best friend through a crisis. In some areas without a dedicated emergency facility, area veterinarians handle emergencies in addition to their regular caseloads. For these reasons, urgent care is generally more costly than daytime appointments. An estimate is usually provided as soon as the animal’s condition permits, and if you have financial limitations, you should discuss your concerns and expectations candidly with the veterinarian.

Heather McCauley, DVM, is a graduate of University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine who lives near Rockwall, Texas. Dr. McCauley practices as a relief veterinarian serving the eastern Dallas metroplex to Tyler areas for McCauley Veterinary Services.