How to Know If You Should Take Your Pet to the Vet Right Now

Is it an emergency or can you wait till the morning to see a vet?

Understanding what constitutes a crisis can help save your pet’s life. “If a condition causes a pet to be mildly lethargic, show reduced appetite/water consumption, or just to not seem right (“ADR, or Ain’t Doing Right”), then owners generally have more flexibility in deciding if a pet should be examined by a veterinarian,” says Dr. Patrick Mahaney, VMD, owner of the California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW) clinic and an advocate of holistic medicine and supplements.

On the other hand, any medical condition having a severe or sudden onset merits immediate examination by a veterinarian, according to Mahaney. “This includes being hit by a car, limping, seizure activity, squinting of the one or both eyes, lacerations causing overt bleeding, vomiting and diarrhea that just won’t seem to stop, and more,” Mahaney says.

To find out more about emergencies and warning signs, we talked to Dr. Mahaney.

The Honest Kitchen: Why is a sudden head tilt an emergency? What can it indicate?

Patrick Mahaney: Sudden head tilt can be an emergency because it can mean a pet has mild to severe ear infection with bacteria, yeast, mites or the presence of a foreign body (plant awn, etc.) or other issue that could affect the ear drum or inner ear. Other symptoms that can occur include head shaking, ear scratching, vocalizing, lethargy, decreased appetite, and more.

THK: Is blood in urine, feces, or vomit an emergency? What can these be a sign of?

PM: The need for urgent evaluation depends on the bodily fluid continuing the blood and the severity to which blood is seen. Blood in urine or vomit is generally more of a concern than blood in formed and otherwise normal-appearing feces. Yet, profuse liquid vomit having blood is always a concern as large volumes of liquid are lost through the colon and the body can quickly become dehydrated.



THK: Why is difficulty urinating (or straining to urinate) an emergency in male cats?

PM: Difficulty urinating, also known as dysuria (painful or difficult urination), is always a concern with male cats because there is a high likelihood that urinary outflow obstruction can occur. Male cats have a smaller diameter urethra than female cats, so they are more likely to develop urinary obstruction when crystals, red/white blood cells, protein, or other substances cause sedimentation and have an effect to plug up the flow of urine through the urethra.

Not being able to urinate is very uncomfortable and can lead to a variety of other problems like kidney failure, electrolyte abnormalities, cardiac arrhythmias, and more. So, it’s crucial that male cats that are improperly urinating immediately have an examination with a veterinarian.

Female cats are less-likely to develop urinary obstruction, but if they develop urinary abnormalities the issue should be addressed with a veterinarian within the first 24 hours of the clinical signs developing.

THK: If your pet has a sudden inability to bear weight on one or more limbs, should this be considered an emergency?

PM: Yes, when a pet has inability to bear wight on one or more limbs an emergency examination is merited. The degree of lameness may be mild or severe depending on the underling cause. Determining the diagnosis and recommending the appropriate treatment is something that is best performed after the veterinary examination has occurred.

THK: When is a swollen abdomen an emergency?

PM: Sudden onset swollen abdomen often occurs secondary to rupture of organ systems like the spleen or liver where blood then collects in the abdominal cavity instead of remaining in the arteries and veins to provide oxygenation to tissues. Hemoabdomen (bleeding into the abdomen) can happen secondary to cancers that grow in the liver or spleen and then suddenly rupture and require emergency examination, diagnostics, and treatments. Accumulation of gas in the digestive tract or leakage of urine from the bladder are two other contributing factors to abdominal distention that merit concern.

Swollen abdomen in an intact (non-spayed) female dog could mean the dog is pregnant, has a pyometra (infected uterus), or other ailment. Pyometra is more likely to occur on a sudden basis than pregnancy.



THK: Are seizures always an emergency?

PM: Seizures are always an emergency. Pursuing an examination by a veterinarian is less urgent if the pet has already been examined by a veterinarian and is under observation/treatment for seizures. First-time seizure activity is always an emergency as there are so many potential causes, including toxic exposure, blood sugar and calcium alterations, organ system failure, the presence of cancer in or affecting the nervous system, and others.

THK: When does vomiting/diarrhea become an emergency?

PM: Vomiting/diarrhea becomes an emergency when it persists beyond a few attempts to vomit or defecate or if the gastric contents or stool produced has blood. As pertains to diarrhea, the concern is greater when there is liquid, blood, large volume, urgency, explosive nature, straining, etc. Vomiting is more concerning when blood is present or when a pet repeatedly retches to vomit without producing any stomach contents.

Pets that are juvenile (puppies and kittens), seniors (greater than seven years of age), which have been diagnosed with serious ailments (organ system failure, cancer, etc.), or those on medications that develop vomit or diarrhea are of greater concern than their younger, healthy counterparts that aren’t taking medication.

THK: What about a pet that’s suddenly bumping into things?

PM: A pet that is suddenly bumping into things or seems disoriented should be examined immediately by a veterinarian because there is likely a visual abnormality. Acute onset blindness can occur due to retinal detachment, glaucoma (increased intraocular pressure), and other causes. Pursing an examination as quickly as possible is crucial to establishing a diagnosis and pursuing appropriate treatment.

THK: What is non-productive retching and why is this an emergency?

PM: Non-producing retching is the body’s attempt to evacuate stomach contents without achieving success. Such can mean a foreign body obstruction is present in the stomach or small intestine. When there is a blockage preventing movement of fluids and food from the stomach into the small intestine, an obstruction in the small intestine, a hypersensitivity reaction resulting from an insect invenomation, or other causes the body responds by attempting to vomit.

When nothing is produced in the vomit (non-productive retching), then it’s crucial to immediately take a pet to a veterinary hospital to have an examination and recommended diagnostics and treatments.



THK: Is trauma (getting hit by a car, falling out of a window) always an emergency, even if you don’t see any injuries or bleeding?

PM: Yes, the majority of traumas pets endure are considered emergencies. It’s common for trauma to the internal organs to occur that cannot be seen to the untrained eye. The lungs can be shaken around inside the chest cavity and develop bruises called pulmonary contusions that prevent normal oxygenation. Abdominal organs can be similarly traumatized and incur damage that affects normal function.

Therefore, having a veterinary examination and pursuing diagnostics like x-rays, ultrasound, and others is crucial to achieving a diagnosis and pursing the most appropriate treatment.

THK: Any particular examples of things that might seem scary but can usually wait till the next morning?

PM: Reverse sneezing is a rapid inhalation/exhalation that occurs secondary to irritation to the respiratory tract, that can appear like a pet is having severe breathing problems. Some owners have even reported reverse sneezing to appear as though a pet is having some form of convulsion or seizure. So, no need to bring Fido into the emergency room at 3 AM to have reverse sneezing assessed unless the condition doesn’t stop or is becoming more severe (nasal discharge, passing out, etc.).

Meet the Author: Diana Bocco

Diana Bocco is a full-time writer and avid adventurer. She's gone hiking in Siberia, snorkeling in Thailand, and canoeing in the Mekong River. She also loves caves and has been known to get lost in one or five around the world. Diana's work has been published in the Discovery Channel website, Yahoo!, Popular Mechanics, and more. You can read more of her work on her website at

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