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How to Recognize 5 Common Pet Health Emergencies

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Would you know if your pet was experiencing a life-threatening health emergency?

The symptoms associated with life-threatening conditions are not always obvious and it can be hard to tell whether or not symptoms point to an emergency. Familiarizing yourself with common pet health concerns that require immediate medical attention, and understanding the signs and symptoms associated with them, will assist in saving your pet's life should they ever experience a life-threatening emergency.

Keep reading to...

  • Discover five of the most common pet health emergencies

  • Learn the symptoms associated with each emergency

  • Find out what to do in the event of each emergency

  • Access pet first-aid resources

Explore 5 of the Most Common Pet Health Emergencies

Please note: This list is not reflective of any or all of the possible emergencies your pet could experience, but rather an anecdotal list of five emergencies we commonly see amongst our companion animal patients. It is important to remain vigilant of your pets at all times and contact your veterinarian if any concerning symptoms arise, whether or not the symptoms are referenced within this list.

1. Gastrointestinal Obstruction (Blockage)

A gastrointestinal obstruction, commonly referred to as a 'blockage', is a condition where the intestinal tract becomes blocked, usually by a foreign object that was consumed orally, resulting in symptoms including the inability to defecate, difficulty digesting food and gastrointestinal upset. Because they're a species that uses their mouths to interact with the world around them, this condition most commonly affects dogs. Dogs chew on objects and materials as a way to explore them, which sometimes leads to actual ingestion of those items. And although less common, cats are also known to ingest objects - most often string, thread and unfortunately the associated sewing needles. After a pet ingests a foreign body, the body is unable to break the unknown item down, making it very difficult for the objects to successfully move through the gastrointestinal system. Eventually the item becomes lodged somewhere within the gastrointestinal system, blocking the natural flow of fluid, nutrients and waste, and requires medical intervention to successfully remove the object from the body.

Signs and Symptoms of a GI Blockage

Household Objects That Commonly Cause GI Blockages

What To Do If You Suspect Your Pet Is Suffering From a Blockage

2. Urethral Obstruction

A urethral obstruction refers to a condition where the urethra (the tube that drains urine from the bladder out of the body) becomes blocked, resulting in the inability to urinate. Although a urethral obstruction can occur in any animal, it's a condition seen most commonly in male cats. Male cats have particularly long, narrow urethras, placing them at higher risk for blockages to occur. Several conditions including obesity, kidney disease and history of urinary issues are risk factors for urethral obstructions. A variety of things can cause these blockages, from inflammation of the urinary tract to bladder stones. The inability to urinate caused by these blockages creates a build up of urine in the body, leading to several serious side effects including the release of toxins into the blood steam, over-filling of the bladder and kidney failure. These symptoms can develop very quickly (within 24 hours) after the urethra becomes blocked, and if left untreated can result in death in a matter of hours.

Signs and Symptoms of a Urethral Obstruction

  • Frequent trips in and out of the litter box

  • Squatting to urinate with no urine production

  • Straining to urinate

  • Attempts to urinate produce just drops of urine

  • Yowling when in the litter box

What To Do If You Suspect Your Pet Is Suffering From a Urethral Blockage

3. Gastric Dilatation - Volvulus (Bloat)

Gastric Dilatation, also known as 'bloat' or 'simple bloat', refers to a dangerous condition where the stomach fills with gas, resulting in a bloated, enlarged stomach. The enlarged stomach begins to press on nearby internal organs, restricting vital blood flow throughout the body. In some cases, this condition progresses to where the stomach actually twists on itself, blocking the entrance and exit points to the stomach - this is referred to as volvulus. Gastric Dilatation - Volvulus (GDV) is a very serious, life-threatening condition that requires immediate veterinary care. Urgent surgery is required to correct GDV. GDV is a condition that most commonly affects dogs, and while any dog is at risk for simple bloat and GDV, large breeds with particularly deep-chests are at the highest risk.

Possible Causes and Risk Factors for Simple Bloat and GDV

  • Eating very quickly

  • Drinking large amounts of water quickly

  • Exercising soon after eating or drinking

  • Chronic anxiety, fear and stress

  • Large Breeds with deep chests

Signs and Symptoms of Simple Bloat and GDV

What To Do If You Suspect Your Pet Is Suffering From Simple Bloat or GDV

Ways to Keep Your Pet Safe from Bloat and GDV

4. Toxin Ingestion

Toxin ingestion refers to the consumption of a substance that is harmful or poisonous to the body. It's important to note that what is considered toxic varies depending on what species we are looking at, as substances effect different species in different ways. In other words, what's considered safe for you or I could be considered deadly for our companion animals. And unfortunately this is the case with many seemingly harmless household items such as plants, toothpaste and raisins. While safe for us humans, these objects could kill our companion animals.

Pets can ingest toxins either by swallowing them, inhaling them or absorbing them through the skin, and both dogs and cats alike are prone to consuming toxic substances. It's important to stay vigilant and note that the side effects of poisoning are nuanced and varied, extending over several body systems. If you suspect your pet has ingested a toxic substance do not wait for symptoms to present - seek veterinary care immediately.

Common Household Items That Are Toxic For Pets

  • Xylitol, a sweetener found in: toothpaste, gum, peanut butter and many other items

  • Marijuana

  • Chocolate, especially dark chocolate

  • Grapes and raisins

  • Macadamia nuts

  • Prescription medications

  • OTC human medications, such as Ibuprofen and Tylenol

  • Pest repellents

  • Antifreeze

  • Toilet bowl cleaners

  • Countless house and yard plants, especially lilies for cats

  • Canine parasite prevention if given to a cat

  • For a complete list of pet toxins and hazards, visit: ASPCA Poison Control or view the AVMA's Household Hazard List

Signs and Symptoms of Pet Poisoning

What To Do If You Suspect Your Pet Has Ingested a Toxin

Ways to Keep Your Pet Safe From Toxins

5. Anaphylaxis

Anaphylaxis, commonly referred to as 'allergic reaction', refers to the acute, systemic reaction that occurs when the body comes into contact with something it perceives as dangerous (an allergen). Internally on a biological level, the immune system is triggered by the allergen, causing the body to begin releasing large quantities of inflammatory cells in an attempt to fight off the allergen. Externally this biological response manifests with a variety of symptoms ranging in severity from hives to respiratory distress and collapse. Anaphylaxis typically onsets soon (5 to 30 minutes) after the pet is exposed to the trigger allergen and requires immediate veterinary attention to reverse the reaction. Depending on the severity of the reaction, anaphylaxis can be life-threatening.


Emergency Care at Fire Mountain Veterinary Hospital

During our regular business hours our team is prepared to see emergency cases and we will always prioritize these critical patients, regardless of our existing schedule of routine appointments. Our experienced team of veterinary professionals is ready to calmly, efficiently and skillfully care for your pet under even the most extreme circumstances. For the more critical cases that need the attention of a 24 hour emergency hospital, we'll triage the patient here at our hospital and once stable, we'll transfer care to one of the nearby, trusted 24-hour hospitals specializing in critical care.

If you live in North County San Diego near the city of Oceanside and suspect your dog or cat is experiencing a health emergency, call our hospital immediately.


Pet Emergency and First Aid Resources

Want to continue learning more about preventing and addressing pet health emergencies? Enjoy these credible resources compiled by our team, created by fellow veterinary professionals.

  • Happy Paws Podcast | Episode: Pet First Aid Expert Arden Moore

  • ASPCA Poison Control

  • Pet Poison Helpline

  • List of plants toxic (and safe) for pets

  • List of household items dangerous for pets

  • How to Make a Pet First Aid Kit


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