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San Bruno Pet Hospital 1111 El Camino Real
San Bruno, CA 94066
Phone: (650) 583-5039
Fax: (650) 763-8620

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Sat: 8a-5p
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After Hours Emergency
Emergency Clinic


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12 Dog Emergencies That Need
Immediate Vet Attention


If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call San Bruno Pet -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

Sick Dog Some emergencies come on suddenly and are overt, but others start with vague symptoms.

Dr. Eric Barchas

For several years before I came to San Bruno Pet Hospital I worked as an emergency veterinarian. As the title implies, that means I treated emergencies. But what is a veterinary emergency anyway? How can you tell whether your dog is suffering from an emergency that requires urgent treatment, or whether your dog’s problem is something that can wait until the next available appointment?

This article will discuss several of the most serious and common veterinary emergencies. It is by no means exhaustive — there are far too many different types of true emergencies to list them all, and there are emergencies that can’t even be imagined before they happen.

Many emergencies are not subtle — collapse, paralysis, and hemorrhagic diarrhea come to mind. However, some urgently life-threatening problems, such as bloat, can start with symptoms that don’t seem like a big deal at first.

Several critical canine emergencies are described below.
  1. Difficulty breathing
    This is the mother of all veterinary emergencies. After three minutes without breathing it’s all over. If your dog is having trouble breathing, or is “breathing funny,” making alarming noises when he breathes, or is puffing his lips when he breathes, you need to get to San Bruno Pet or, after hours, the emergency clinic immediately.

  2. Restlessness, panting, inability to lie down comfortably, unsuccessfully attempting to vomit, and abdominal distention
    These are all symptoms of gastric dilatation with volvulus, known colloquially as “bloat.” Bloat is one of the most urgently life threatening situations a dog can face. Some dogs will exhibit all of these symptoms, but others may only pant and act restless. Because of its urgency, dogs exhibiting any symptoms suspicious for bloat should be rushed in (but please call us to let us know you’re coming).

  3. Seizures
    Although a solitary seizure is not likely to be life threatening, seizures often come in clusters, which can become progressive. And sometimes seizures are caused by toxins that can cause fatal reactions.

  4. Collapse or profound weakness
    These can be symptoms of major problems such as internal bleeding (particularly a syndrome called hemoabdomen), cardiac compromise due to a condition called pericardial effusion, anaphylactic shock, certain poisonings, a glandular condition called Addison’s disease, and some types of organ failure. All of these problems require urgent veterinary attention.

  5. Profuse hemorrhage or known major trauma
    These are veterinary emergencies. Profuse hemorrhage is a no brainer. However, dogs who have fallen from height, have been struck by cars, or have been in altercations with much larger dogs can appear unharmed at first, despite suffering major internal injuries.

  6. Protracted vomiting and/or diarrhea
    This is a veterinary emergency, especially if the liquid produced is significantly bloody. A dog who vomits once or has a single loose bowel movement may not require any treatment other than a few hours of resting the stomach and a day or two of bland food. However, repeated vomiting and diarrhea can rapidly lead to life-threatening dehydration; they also can be symptoms of major problems such as gastrointestinal obstruction.

  7. Struggling to urinate
    This may simply signify a bladder infection. Bladder infections are painful but not life threatening. However, this symptom could also represent obstruction of the urinary tract by bladder stones — a situation that is very urgent indeed. Either way, your pet will be best off by coming in since bladder infections, as mentioned above, are painful.

  8. Not eating or drinking
    You will have to make a judgement call. If my pal Buster (a Labrador Retriever mix, and quite a chow hound) leaves over a piece of kibble, I know something is wrong. Other dogs may intermittently pass up a meal here or there. However, dogs who go a day or longer without eating almost always are sick. And they usually won’t drink enough water to cover their needs, so dehydration can set in as well.

  9. Coughing
    This may or may not be a veterinary emergency. It can be caused by something as simple and (relatively) harmless as kennel cough. Or it can be caused by pneumonia or exposure to rat bait. When in doubt, the safest course of action is to have your dog checked out.

  10. Loss of use of rear legs
    This is especially common in Dachshunds, Corgis, and other so-called chondrodysplastic (think short legs and long backs) breeds, and can be a sign of injury to the spinal cord. This paralysis or partial paralysis is usually very painful, and rapid treatment can make a big difference in outcome.

  11. Severe pain
    This is an emergency. If your dog is vocalizing, panting, profoundly limping, or exhibiting other symptoms of agony, don’t let him suffer.

  12. Known exposure to dangerous poisons
    This should precipitate an immediate visit. If you catch your dog munching on snail bait, don’t wait for the seizures to start before you come in. Although there are too many dangerous poisons out there to list them all, some of the more common exposures include chocolate, rodent bait, grapes and raisins, human medications, and overdoses of canine medications.
The 12 situations listed above are some of the most common emergency situations that dogs face. However, I must reiterate that this list is not exhaustive.

Call our office if you’re unsure whether your dog is suffering an emergency. Our doctors and staff will be able to help you decide upon the best course of action.

A future column will discuss all of these emergencies again, but with a new twist. We will discuss what you can do to help your dog and maximize the chance of a successful outcome in each of these situations at home and while you’re on your way to our office.

by Dr. Eric Barchas, DVM
Medical Director and owner of San Bruno Pet Hospital