16 life-threatening emergencies that need urgent veterinary attention


31 March 2020
The UK government’s new coronavirus measures have given millions of animal lovers more time than ever with their pets — and more concerns than ever about what might happen if they become ill.

While veterinary practices across the country are allowed to stay open under the current lockdown restrictions, face-to-face contact has been reduced and guidance from the veterinary surgeons’ regulatory body, the RCVS, has restricted veterinary care to emergency treatment only.

All veterinary clinics, hospitals and practices have now switched to fulfilling urgent prescriptions and providing emergency care only.

But what is an emergency? Here are some of the conditions that emergency vets deem to be potentially life-threatening. These have been compiled by leading emergency vet, Dave Leicester, Head of Clinical Intelligence at Vets Now.

In all of these cases, you should call your nearest emergency vet right away.

1. Breathing difficulties

Signs of breathing problems may be obvious, such as choking, gasping and pawing at the throat. Or, they may be more subtle such as breathing through the mouth, panting at rest or increased noise when breathing. Objects stuck in the airway, allergic reactions to stings, infections and injuries are all possible causes. Breathing problems can be immediately life-threatening in pets, so help should be sought immediately.

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2. Open wound injuries

Heavy bleeding should always be considered an emergency and any bleeding that is a constant flow (especially if pulsing) or doesn’t stop in a few minutes also needs to be seen by a vet urgently. If you are able to safely do so, you can apply firm pressure on the wound, and raise it above the level of the patient’s heart, to slow the bleeding before getting to the vet.

3. Traumatic injuries

If your pet has been injured in a fall, from a window for example, or been hit by a car, they may have suffered serious internal injuries that aren’t immediately obvious. Many animals suffering from chest trauma may seem fine initially but can die later from severe bruising to the lungs. So do seek urgent veterinary help and advice.

4. Bloating in dogs

Bloating can be a sign of something called gastric dilation and volvulus, GDV, which is also known as torsion. It is a medical and surgical emergency which can be rapidly fatal if left untreated, but the good news is the survival rate of dogs who undergo emergency surgery after being diagnosed is as high as 80%. If you see your dog retching unproductively, or only producing froth, or developing a swollen abdomen, get help immediately.

5. Failing to urinate

This can happen to any animal but is most common in male cats. If your pet can’t urinate it can lead to kidney failure, bladder rupture and death from internal poisoning. Signs can be confused with constipation, so if you see your male cat constantly straining in the litter tray you should get urgent veterinary advice.

6. Seizing and fitting

Prolonged or frequent seizures can be deadly but regardless of whether your pet has had one fit or several, you should contact your vet or your nearest Vets Now urgently.

7. Poisoning

If you know your dog has eaten something poisonous – or even suspect it – call for help. Although many poisons can be counteracted with prompt action, waiting for symptoms to appear makes this harder and the chances of success drop rapidly.

8. Eye injuries

Although damage, infection or injury to the eyes is unlikely to be life-threatening, they can threaten your pet’s sight and have a profound impact on their lives, not to mention cause them pain and discomfort. Eye problems can progress very rapidly, so do not delay getting attention.

9. Repeated vomiting

It’s quite normal for animals – dogs in particular – to be sick every now and again, so this isn’t necessarily an emergency. But if your pet is repeatedly sick, is generally unwell, can’t keep water down, is vomiting blood, or also has diarrhoea, then you should get them checked just in case.

10. Birthing difficulties

Most dogs and cats give birth without any problem quite happily on their own. However, as a rule of thumb, female dogs shouldn’t go more than two hours between puppies, bleed a lot, or strain hard for more than 20 minutes without producing anything. It’s similar for female cats, although if they are straining non-productively for 20 minutes, consider it an emergency.

11. Severe pain and anxiety

If your pet is showing signs of severe pain or anxiety, they may well be warning you of serious unseen internal problems. So, trust your pet’s warning signs and contact your vet.

12. Heatstroke

Heatstroke occurs when a pet can no longer regulate their own body temperature and keep it at a normal level. It is the result of overheating, for example when pets are left in a hot car or conservatory. Organ damage can happen very quickly as a result of heatstroke and sadly it can be fatal. But cooling them down too fast can actually make your pet worse, so always urgently seek your vet’s advice.

13. Near-drowning

If you pet has been pulled from water, make sure she’s checked by a vet as soon as possible. Animals, like humans, can suffer from secondary drowning where lung damage can cause them to die minutes, or even hours, after being brought from the water.

14. Inability to weight bear or move limbs

Although broken bones or paralysis may not be life-threatening on their own, your pet may be in pain and there may be other injuries that need checked out. Pets with such difficulties may need urgent treatment.

15. Collapse

Acute collapse in dogs may see your pet lose consciousness or they may remain conscious but seem anxious, confused or have a “glassy-eyed” appearance. If you pet collapses, even if they recover spontaneously, you should seek help from a vet straight away.

16. Rabbits not eating

Rabbits frequently hide signs of illness so behaviour such as loss of appetite or lack of faecal pellets, must be picked up right away. It may be a symptom of a common life-threatening condition called gut stasis. If you have concerns, contact your vet.

Vets Nows’ 61 pet emergency clinics and hospitals, will continue to be there for the millions of UK pets who may need emergency treatment over the coming weeks. 

Vet practice teams across the country are asking pet owners to call in the first instance, and are offering a video consultation service, where pet owners can speak to a qualified vet on their mobile, tablet or laptop, from the comfort of their home.  If their clinical teams determine your pet needs essential treatment you will be seen by an emergency vet.