by John Gilpatrick
Lucky pet parents haven’t had to and won’t ever deal with an emergency situation. But the majority of pet parents will, at some point, find their dogs or cats injured or sick and in need of immediate help. And because time is always of the essence in these situations, it’s imperative to know the best course of action before an emergency occurs. After all, you don’t want to find yourself soliciting questionable advice from Google or Siri at a moment of crisis.
Equally important is knowing what NOT to do during a pet emergency. Some of these potential pitfalls will simply make your vet roll his or her eyes, but others could delay or prevent the appropriate care from being administered, leading to extended hospital stays, exacerbated conditions, or worse.
Keep reading for seven things you should NOT do during a pet emergency.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM
The two most common general cases seen by emergency veterinarians, according to experts, are sudden trauma and gastrointestinal issues (diarrhea, vomiting). It’s fair to think either is treatable without a visit to a vet or emergency center, says Amanda Rutter, DVM, an emergency veterinarian at Burlington Emergency and Veterinary Services in Vermont, but that would be a mistake.
“With trauma,” she says, “even if something looks fine on the outside, that doesn’t mean everything is as it should be inside your dog.” Internal injuries can occur even during seemingly mundane accidents. Superficial wounds can heal naturally, but you’ll want to have your pet examined for more serious and tougher-to-spot bleeding.
When it comes to gastrointestinal issues, meanwhile, upset stomachs come and go, but there are much more serious intestinal problems that an attentive owner can spot if he or she knows what to look for.
Tom Dock is the practice manager for Noah’s Caring Hands Animal Hospital in Indianapolis. He notes that a number of intestinal issues for dogs—including many parasites—are non-emergencies, but bloat is one clear sign that something more serious is going on.
Rutter agrees. “If there’s bloat, you need to come in right away,” she says.
Why? When an animal’s stomach bloats, it presses against organs, Rutter says. The swelling can also make it hard for the pet to breathe, and can sometimes lead to a condition called gastric dilatation volvulus (GDV), which causes the patient’s stomach to twist, trapping blood and preventing it from flowing back to the heart.
Bloat often occurs after eating an abnormally large meal, and it can come on quickly. It might seem like a normal full belly at first, but bloat is not to be messed with. Since it can be such a detrimental condition, owners should be familiar with a few of the clinical signs of bloat: trouble breathing, distended abdomen, pacing/inability to get comfortable when lying down, repeated vomiting, and/or retching with no vomit production.
This “don’t” takes several forms. You shouldn’t fool around with medications in the sense that anything you give your dog should be the result of either an in-person or, in the case of an emergency, telephone consultation with a professional. “Pet parents should never give any sort of medication, especially over the counter pain relievers, without the advice of a veterinarian,” Dock says.
It’s also really important for the vet to know what medications your pet is on when you take him to an emergency facility, Rutter says, adding that you don’t want to spend too much valuable time taking diligent notes or printing out medical records. While it’s great to have as detailed a medical rundown as possible for your pet, especially if you’re taking him to a medical facility for the first time, it’s more important to get him there in time to head off any life-threatening situations. “Your best bet is to have all of these records set aside somewhere for easy access in an emergency,” Rutter says. “Next best thing to do is just grab all your pet’s prescription bottles and go.”
Rutter knows all about this. Hers is the only emergency veterinary facility in the state of Vermont. So when an animal needs help at 2:30 in the morning on a cold January night, clients sometimes have to drive two hours or more to get that help. The last thing pet owners want to do, she says, is add to that time because they don’t know where they’re going.
Hopefully, you’re not in a similar situation and your closest veterinary emergency facility is no more than 30 minutes away. Whatever the case, fire up that GPS app or at least familiarize (or re-familiarize) yourself with the best route before driving off in a panic. In the event of confusion, call the facility and ask if they can assist you with directions.
After the worst is over, you’ll start talking with the veterinarian about how to keep your pet on the path to full recovery. It’s important to come up with the best plan, but it’s equally important to come up with a plan that works for you. Make written notes of your vet’s instructions for home care, such as bandage changes or when to give medicine, and if anything is confusing or makes you feel uneasy, ask the vet to explain it differently or help you to come up with an alternative plan that you know you can carry out.
“I want people to be comfortable with home care,” Rutter says. “They should be able to ask the doctors to repeat themselves or express concerns while the pet is still under care. That’s the best time to modify plans so that they work for both the four-legged and the two-legged in this situation.”
“Any home remedy that involves motor oil is not true,” Rutter says. That may seem like a no-brainer, but some people out there in cyberspace would have you believe it’s the best way to treat skin conditions like mange.
This isn’t the only hair-brained home remedy that is just a click away. “There’s another myth out there that if your dog’s nose is cold and wet, that’s some indicator of good health,” Rutter says. “That’s not true at all.”
She also debunks the idea that you can or should give your pet over-the-counter pain relievers. “Tylenol, for instance, has a very narrow safety margin. It’s okay for some, but others will contract very serious liver disease.”
The biggest myth of all: “It’s not uncommon for us to hear ‘He’s been vomiting for a week, but today it’s gotten worse or bloody,’” Dock says. “Come see us whenever you feel that your pet is not doing right. The exam fee is a small price to pay for the peace of mind you will get after the visit.”