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Should You Go to the Emergency Vet?

Health crises for pets are as serious as for humans. Here's how to tell if you should head to the animal ER.
By
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by William Draper, DVM

Think your 2-year-old corners the market on accidents and incidents that lead to trips to the emergency room? If you're a pet owner, you know cats and dogs can get into plenty of ER-worthy trouble, too.

Outdoor pets are particularly prone to cuts and skin punctures, some of which require a vet's immediate attention to avoid infection, says Karl E. Jandrey, DVM, assistant professor of clinical small animal emergency and intensive care at the University of California, Davis.

According to Jandrey, you can't always judge the severity of an injury by its appearance. That's especially true with bite wounds, which are dangerous. Bacteria from the biting animal's mouth can be injected deep into the skin, causing an infection that can quickly get out of control.

Jandrey says there's a golden rule when it comes to seeking help for bites: "If you can get it managed within the first six hours, your pet will do much better because we can get him on therapy and prevent a contaminated wound from becoming an infected wound," he says. If your regular vet can't see your cat or dog that quickly, Jandrey says, go to a pet ER instead.

The same goes for snakebites (poisonous snakes bite more than 15,000 dogs and cats in the United States each year). Take your pet to an emergency clinic ASAP. Enzymes in venom work quickly to break down muscles, tendons, and ligaments, causing severe and sometimes permanent damage.

When Your Pet Gets Stung

A bee or wasp sting to your pet can cause facial swelling, hives, and itchiness, which often go away on their own. But symptoms that worsen or a sting that sends your pet into anaphylactic shock require immediate medical attention. Early signs of anaphylactic shock include panting, rapid heart rate, and sudden diarrhea, vomiting, or urination.

Other symptoms for your get-to-the-ER-now list include: breathing difficulty, bleeding, pale gums (a sign the animal has anemia or is in shock), weakness, any sign of physical pain, or an animal that collapses.

On the fence about whether your dog or cat needs care? Err on the side of caution, Jandrey advises. "Peace of mind is better than undertreating any malady."

Pet First Aid

The best way to deal with a pet emergency is to be prepared before one strikes. Jandrey offered WebMD these first aid tips:

  • Don't delay. Don't travel farther than you have to for medical help. Go straight to the closest emergency clinic, Jandrey says.
  • Don't play doctor. It's a good idea to have bandages and gauze on hand to wrap your pet's wounds or stop bleeding. But, Jandrey says, "medications should never be given without consulting a veterinarian."
  • Protect yourself. Injured dogs or cats sometimes act aggressively. Instead of rushing toward your pet, first kneel down and calmly say his or her name. If your dog behaves aggressively, step away and call for help.
  • Do your research. When you're planning a trip with your pet, make sure you know where to go in the event of an emergency.

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of "WebMD the Magazine."

Reviewed on April 10, 2012

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