It happens to pet owners every day: Seemingly out of nowhere, a beloved animal comes down with a violent sickness or a traumatic injury and needs treatment at an emergency clinic.
Many pet owners find themselves wondering if the pet’s condition warrants a trip to the veterinary ER. Doctors’ answers are that if you have to ask, it’s time to go.
“Any concern is considered an emergency,” says Cynthia McCauley, DVM, of Animal Emergency Center of West Houston, Houston, Texas.
“We can’t physically see the patient through the phone, and oftentimes, pet owners who are trying to describe something that’s going on can’t find the right words. They might say a pet is ‘twitching.’ That could be perfectly normal, but it could also be a seizure.”
The first step is to call the emergency clinic to give staff a heads-up as to what’s going on with the pet and when to expect your visit. The next is to get the animal to the clinic, and that’s not always a simple proposition.
Veterinarians caution that pet owners should assume their animal might bite or scratch in an emergency situation, even if the pet has never been aggressive before.
“If a pet is injured or seriously ill and experiencing pain, sometimes it will be very sensitive,” says Sally Ryan, DVM, of Affiliated Emergency Service, Eden Prairie, Minn. “You should remind yourself that their behavior might be different than normal because of that.”
She recommends muzzling a pet that might be in pain before trying to transport it, either with an actual muzzle or by using a scarf, belt, tie, or other object tied around the animal’s snout to prevent it from biting. Basket muzzles are the best choice because they allow the pet to open its mouth and breathe or pant without allowing it to bite.
“If they’re having breathing problems, you don’t want to muzzle,” Ryan says. “If they’re not conscious, you wouldn’t need to muzzle either. You have to use your best judgment.”
She also recommends immobilizing the pet as much as possible, ideally, by enveloping the animal in a large blanket. That said, she does not recommend trying to splint an obviously injured leg, as one might with a human patient.
“If you apply a splint without using pain medication, it’s going to cause more pain for the animal than just to bring it to the emergency hospital without it,” Ryan says. “You might wrap a towel around bleeding to stabilize that, but you don’t want to incur more pain by trying to immobilize a limb.”
McCauley asks pet owners to try and get a second person in the car, to watch the animal on the way to the emergency room. “Sometimes a pet will vomit based on pain,” she says. The muzzle should be removed immediately if your pet appears to be vomiting. “They could inhale that and get it into their lungs,” particularly if they’re muzzled and not being observed. Don’t waste too much time trying to find a second person, though, since time is of the essence.
The other thing to do before heading to the emergency clinic is to gather any medications your pet is taking, or compile a list of them, along with any relevant medical history. Ideally, these items should be prepared and ready before the emergency ever occurs.Because emergency veterinarians won’t know the pet the way its regular veterinarian does, it’s helpful for them to have an idea of the pet’s medical history before deciding on a medication or course of treatment.
“Many times, clients can’t remember the names of medications, how much they’re giving, or why they’re giving them,” says McCauley. “We don’t have their history. We’ve never seen their pet before. A lot of that information can be helpful to us, especially if the pet has a long-term medical condition or chronic illness.” She recommends that pet owners request a copy of the written medical record to include physical exam findings, test results, treatments performed, and medications prescribed. “We love for clients to come in with their binders. It’s incredibly helpful,” McCauley adds.
Ryan agrees. “Ideally, you would bring current medications with you, and medical records are important if the patient is being referred from a primary care veterinarian,” she says. “Any information you have about your pet—anything about chronic problems or ongoing medical care—is always helpful for emergency veterinarians.”
What’s in Your Medical Emergency Kit?
Most people keep emergency medical kits in their houses for people—things like bandages, rubbing alcohol, and eye wash can be helpful in a medical emergency while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
Most people don’t have the same sort of kit for their pets, but veterinarians say that it’s a good idea to keep some supplies at home, just in case.
Ryan and other veterinarians recommend keeping several items on hand:
- A topical antibiotic, such as Neosporin, that does not contain lidocaine, benzocaine, or cortisone
- Benadryl without Tylenol in it (Tylenol is toxic to cats and dogs)
- Sterile saline solution, to flush eyes or clean wounds
- A muzzle, ideally a “ basket muzzle” that allows the animal to open its mouth and breathe freely
- ACE®-type bandages to wrap injuries if necessary
- Hydrogen peroxide, which can be used to induce vomiting (veterinarians warn pet owners to not try this unless it’s under the direct advice of their own medical professional)
- Tweezers, to remove splinters and other small items from paws
Veterinarians warn that giving human medication, even aspirin, to a pet can be very dangerous, and say owners that are far better advised to visit with their veterinarian or an emergency veterinarian for a proper diagnosis and prescription.