When Do I Need to Take My Dog to the ER Vet?

I recently had a friend ask me, in hind-sight, why their middle-aged dog died at home "suddenly." They had noticed that their dog was "off" for a day and had a "really bad night." In other words, their dog was collapsed, couldn’t get up, wouldn’t eat, and had a few seizures in the middle of the night ("He looked like he was going to die, with his eyes rolling into his head").

Sadly, this dog died the following day (over 24 hours later) when it was en route to a veterinarian. Being that this dog had never seizured before, this was the dog’s clue that he needed to be taken to a vet ASAP. Not the next day. Now. In other words, as soon as you notice signs of your dog being "off," a veterinary visit is a must. After all, your dog can’t talk to you!

Rather than be hounded for free veterinary advice post-mortem, I would have rather helped them pre … that is, before their dog actually deteriorated to the point of death.

After all, this dog’s death could have been something as simple as xylitol poisoning, with the seizures occurring secondary to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), something that is easily fixed in the ER.

News flash, people: Dogs don’t typically "die" suddenly at home, nor should they. As heart-breaking as it is, unless it’s from sudden acute internal bleeding (usually from a very aggressive cancer called hemangiosarcoma), or from pericardial effusion (abnormal blood accumulating around the heart sac), it’s something your emergency veterinarian could have treated. Some people also say that dogs will "suddenly die" of bloat — more scientifically known as gastric diliatation-volvulus (GDV) — however, I don’t believe this excuse. The clinical signs of GDV are pretty severe; after all, your dog’s stomach is twisted and needs emergency surgery.

Typically, signs of severe anxiety, pacing, attempting to vomit, a distended abdomen, and running up to you ("Take me to the veterinarian, mom!") are your classic signs of GDV. The more advanced stages follow: collapse, not being able to move, a racing heart, and labored breathing. If you fail to miss these signs, your dog will die at home, and will suffer slowly and painfully in the process due to severe hypovolemic shock. It’s a painful and terrible way of going, folks.

As an educated pet owner, you should know that resources abound: the Internet (albeit not always the most reliable source), a phone call to your local emergency veterinarian, and your veterinarian. Often times, the receptionist or veterinary technician may be able to help triage your dog’s problem over the phone and help you decide if it warrants an emergency veterinary visit.

When in doubt, take your dog or cat to the veterinarian or emergency veterinarian. Even though it may be expensive, the $135 for the emergency fee may give you the peace of mind that all is okay. No animal should have to die at home, as the signs are typically pretty severe for this to happen. And, it’s really painful and miserable to die at home when it could have been medically treated to begin with.

Even if you have financial limitations and know you can’t spend thousands of dollars in a veterinary ER, at least you can find out (1) what’s wrong with your pet, and (2) humanely euthanize so your pet doesn’t suffer at home to the point of death.

Signs that you should take your dog to an emergency veterinarian include:

  • Non-productive retching
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Constant coughing
  • Restlessness
  • Pale gums
  • An elevated heart rate (> 160 beats per minute at home)
  • Crying out in pain
  • Not being able to move
  • A distended abdomen
  • Extreme lethargy
  • Any significant amounts of bleeding
  • Any trauma
  • Not walking
  • Dragging the back legs
  • Any toxin ingestion or poisoning
  • Squinting, bulging, or painful eyeballs
  • Bloody urine
  • Straining to urinate

While this list isn’t inclusive, if you’re concerned enough, bring ‘em in. The time is a small sacrifice for your dog’s health and your piece of mind.

Next week, signs for cats that are a "must" visit to the ER.

Dr. Justine Lee

Image: Willow by Ryan Kemmers / via Flickr

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