10 Signs Your Dog is Having a Veterinary Emergency

Dr. Hannah Godfrey, BVetMed, MRCVS

Small dog in a cone with a broken right front leg in a red cast

In the panic of the moment, some mild conditions can appear very serious or even life-threatening to the untrained eye. Read on for some helpful tips to determine whether your canine’s condition can wait until the morning or whether they need immediate assessment by a veterinarian.

How to decide if your dog needs swift veterinary intervention

Certain symptoms can be more concerning than others. If your dog is showing one or more of the symptoms below, it could indicate that they require urgent veterinary treatment.

1. Blood loss 

Severe blood loss is always an emergency – whether from a wound, from the mouth, or within vomit or diarrhea. When faced with a bleeding dog, it is easy to panic, and it can look like there is more blood than there is.

Take a breath and try to quantify the amount of blood calmly – would it fill a coffee cup or a bucket? Being able to explain to your veterinarian a rough estimate of how much blood there is will help decide whether it is an emergency and assist the veterinarian in beginning preparation for treatment like a blood transfusion if required.

2. Collapse or weakness

There are many causes of collapse or weakness, but if your dog is suddenly unable to stand, this is a veterinary emergency. The only potential exception to this rule is if a dog has had mobility issues for a long time and has gradually deteriorated. In this instance, if their pain is controlled, this can wait a few hours until your local clinic is open.

3. Vomiting or retching

If your dog is suddenly vomiting profusely, for example, more than four times in an hour, they are likely to become dehydrated and so should see a veterinarian immediately. Similarly, if they cannot keep water down or are constantly retching but bringing nothing but white foam up, they should be assessed by a veterinarian as an emergency. Additional symptoms like bloating or swelling of their belly also suggest emergency intervention could be required.

4. Breathing distress

Any sustained difficulty in breathing —be that choking, coughing, wheezing, or panting— could be a veterinary emergency. If your pet’s breathing pattern is not right, call your veterinarian right away.

5. Not passing urine

If your dog isn’t peeing, this can be a serious emergency as it can indicate an obstruction in the urethra (the tube that takes urine from the bladder out of the body). If your dog is straining but passing no urine or cannot form a stream of urine, this is an emergency as the bladder can become over-full and even burst (rupture) if the urine isn’t passed. 

6. Severe pain

If your pet is in severe pain, this could be considered an emergency – whether it’s due to an acute injury or illness or an existing condition where prescribed pain relief is not working. No dog should ever be in severe, uncontrolled pain, but try to calmly consider the level of discomfort they are in and whether they genuinely need to be seen immediately.

7. Severe limping

If your dog is not putting any weight on one of their legs for an hour or more, or there is a visible fracture to the leg, seek veterinary advice immediately. Not only do they need pain relief, but assessing the injury as possible will mean a better chance of a full recovery.

8. Neurological signs

If your dog has had a trauma to the head and is showing unusual signs like incoordination, being less alert, or fitting, this is a veterinary emergency. 

If your dog has a series of seizures in a short time or does not come around fully from a fit, this would be an emergency. Seizures lasting more than five minutes should also prompt a veterinary visit.

9. Problems in labor

If a female dog is giving birth and has been consistently pushing for half an hour or more, this could signify that a puppy is stuck in the birth canal, and veterinary help should be sought immediately. However, remember that there can be significant gaps between pups in normal labor, so this is not an emergency if there is no straining.

10. Heatstroke

If it is a warm day and your dog has been exercising or unable to get to shade, they may suffer from heatstroke. Brachycephalic dogs with short snouts and narrow airways are particularly prone to heatstroke and may suffer on days when the temperature isn’t excessively high. 

Signs include panting excessively, laying down, and difficulty breathing, but seizures, coma, and death are all possible consequences if untreated. Heat exhaustion is an emergency, and you must contact your veterinarian right away if you suspect your dog is suffering from it.

What signs might help me decide if my dog needs emergency treatment?

You can do some checks quickly at home or on a walk that will help you decide whether your dog’s condition requires immediate veterinary attention.

  • Gum color – your dog’s gums (unless they are black and pigmented) should be salmon pink. If they are pale pink, white, blue/grey, or bright red, you should call a veterinarian right away.
  • Hydration status – if you lift the skin of your dog’s scruff (at the back of their neck) and then drop it, it should fall straight back into place. If there is a delay, or it doesn’t return to its normal position, this could indicate dehydration and could be an emergency.
  • Breathing pattern – watch your dog breathing for 15 seconds, then multiply it by 4. If their breathing rate is more than 40 breaths per minute, or if it seems faster than normal, you should speak to your veterinarian immediately. Equally, if the breathing pattern seems unusually shallow or your dog seems to be requiring a lot of effort to breathe, this is an emergency.
  • Responsiveness – is your dog aware of you calling their name? If they are unconscious, unresponsive, or less responsive than normal, it would be sensible to contact your veterinarian right away.

What can I do to help in an emergency?

Stay calm

If you think your dog’s condition might be an emergency, the most important thing to do if you think your dog’s condition might be an emergency is to stay calm. It can be hard to think clearly when stressed or panicked, and there could be an additional risk to you or your dog. 

Assess your dog

Ensure you are in a safe place where no further harm can come to your dog or yourself. If your dog is in pain or feeling unwell, they may lash out, so approach them gently and cautiously. Check their gum color, hydration, breathing pattern, and responsiveness, and assess any blood loss. This will give you an idea of whether it is a true emergency and ensure you have information ready to pass on to your veterinarian. 

Once you have determined that your dog needs an emergency assessment by a veterinarian, call them immediately. If you are unsure whether your dog’s condition is an emergency, it is best to contact your veterinarian for advice. 

First aid and risk prevention

While awaiting veterinary help, you may be able to apply a clean dressing, towel, or other clean clothing to any wounds if they are bleeding. Even if you have nothing to use to cover the injury, applying pressure with a clean hand can help to slow any bleeding.

If your dog is having a seizure, ensure that they have space and are clear of any furniture, stairs, or other areas where they could be injured. Often, veterinary advice would be to wait for an episode to end before moving your dog, so you can keep busy by ensuring the area is clear and timing or filming the episode to help your veterinarian later. Do not try to put anything in or near your dog’s mouth during a seizure.

If you think your dog has heatstroke, consider placing them in the car with the air conditioning on, using a hose or buckets of tepid water, or placing cool, wet towels on them to help start reducing their body temperature safely.

What if I wait and see?

It can be tempting to delay seeking veterinary treatment due to fear of what might be wrong or if the timing isn’t good or funds are tight. However, in most veterinary emergencies, prompt treatment means a much better chance of recovery. 

For instance, it is easy to see how a ‘wait and see’ approach could prove fatal if your dog is bleeding heavily, and with heatstroke, it is clear why it is vital to start safe cooling methods right away. 

In other cases, the risk of waiting can seem less clear. For example, if your dog has a cluster of seizures they will need medication from a veterinarian to bring them out of the cycle of seizures. And your dog’s constant retching and bloat may seem like it can wait an hour or two in case it resolves, but a twisted and bloated stomach (known as Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus) is a condition that is rapidly fatal without intervention. 

So, if your dog is showing signs consistent with an emergency, do not hesitate to contact your veterinarian.

Frequently asked questions

Is a dog peeing blood an emergency?

Although seeing blood in the urine can be scary or upsetting, it is not always the symptom of an emergency. The most common cause of blood in the urine is a urinary tract infection, which is not an emergency and is very treatable. If your dog can pass urine, even if they pass smaller amounts more frequently, it is unlikely to be an emergency.

However, if your dog is straining and unable to pass any urine, this could be a sign of obstruction like a bladder stone within the urethra. This would be an emergency, and veterinary help should be sought immediately so that the veterinarian can pass a catheter to relieve the pressure if required.

It is important to mention that if you notice blood in your dog’s urine and bleeding or bruising elsewhere, this is an emergency as it could be a sign of a bleeding disorder or rat poisoning. Examples of other emergency symptoms would be bleeding from the gums, nose, or bottom or bruising of the skin or whites of the eyes.

Is a dog vomiting blood an emergency?

While a dog vomiting blood could be a sign of irritation of the lining of the stomach or food pipe (esophagus), it could also be a sign of a more severe stomach ulcer or bleeding disorder. Therefore, if there is a lot of blood or there is blood in the vomit multiple times, it should be considered an emergency.

As with blood in the urine, if you see bleeding elsewhere and in the vomit, it could be a sign of a bleeding disorder, and you should seek veterinary attention right away.

Is there a 911 for pets?

There is no national emergency service for pets, but you can contact your usual veterinary clinic if you have an emergency, day or night. If your veterinary clinic is closed, their voicemail message and website will have information on contacting their emergency veterinarian.

If you are concerned about what would happen in an emergency, speak to your veterinary clinic who will be able to inform you of their emergency service provider’s details in advance so that you feel prepared.

Is a dog fever an emergency?

On its own, a high temperature in a dog is not an emergency, although veterinary advice should be sought within twenty-four hours or if there is any deterioration in your dog’s condition. If their breathing, gum color, hydration, or responsiveness is affected, you should contact your veterinarian right away.

Is a dog abscess an emergency?

If your dog has an abscess, it is generally not an emergency, but you should contact a veterinary professional within twenty-four hours to arrange for them to be seen. If their condition worsens, or if they are very lethargic, dehydrated, pale, or unresponsive, you should contact a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Conditions that are commonly mistaken for emergencies

Sometimes, understandably, non-emergency conditions can be mistaken for emergencies by pet parents. The list below gives some examples of these conditions that can seem life-threatening but aren’t.

Reverse sneezing

Reverse sneezing describes a particular type of snorting behavior that some dogs are prone to. It can seem serious because it can appear that something is lodged up the nose or that your dog is unable to breathe. 

Thankfully, reverse sneezing is harmless. If you are unsure if your dog is reverse sneezing, some videos online show what a reverse sneeze looks and sounds like.

A seizure

A single seizure that lasts less than five minutes and your dog recovers fully from is not an emergency. You do not need to contact your veterinarian until after the seizure has ended. Instead, time the seizure and take a video for your vet. 

If your dog fails to come around fully after a seizure, the seizure lasts more than five minutes, or your dog has more than one seizure, this could be an emergency, and you should speak to your veterinarian promptly.

Kennel cough

Because kennel cough causes coughing fits that can be lengthy and relentless, the condition is commonly mistaken for being more serious. Luckily, the condition rarely causes anything more than coughing and lethargy and is not usually an emergency unless other symptoms are present.

Blood in the stools

The lining of the large bowel and rectum are very vascular, meaning that spots of blood in feces are quite common, especially if they have diarrhea and are straining. However, streaks of blood are not an emergency.

Conclusion

Remember to keep calm and assess the situation carefully (bearing in mind that animals can lash out in pain or distress). Don’t forget that if you are in doubt, you should call your vet—they’ll be able to help you decide whether you need to rush your dog in or not.