Category Archives: trauma

12 Dog Emergencies That Need Immediate Veterinary Attention


12 Dog Emergencies That Need Immediate Veterinary Attention

Knowing when a health problem is a serious concern can be a tough call. This makes it a little easier.

Dr. Eric Barchas

For several years I have worked as an emergency veterinarian. As the title implies, that means I treat emergencies. But what is a veterinary emergency anyway? How can you tell whether your dog is suffering from an emergency that requires urgent treatment at 1:00 am, or whether your dog’s problem is something that can wait until the morning?

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. (If you doubt that, then I urge you to read my story about the dog who put his life at risk by eating a fake breast.)

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 emergencies will be described below. If something seems wrong with your dog that does not seem to fit into any of the descriptions, there are some basic guidelines you can follow to assess the urgency of the situation.

First, check your dog’s gums. The gums give a great deal of information about circulation, blood oxygenation, shock, and hemorrhage. The gums normally should be pink and moist; when pressed gently with a finger, the pressed-upon portion should flash white and then turn pink within a second or two. Pale, blue, grey, or red gums signal trouble. It is best to check your dog’s gums regularly when he is not in distress, so that you can know what they normally look like. If your dog seems not well and you discover a difference in gum coloration, then he should receive treatment.

Second, remember that veterinarians — whether they work at emergency practices or at general practices — have telephones. If you’re wondering whether your dog needs treatment, call a vet to describe the situation. The vet should be able to help you decide whether the situation is urgent.

Third, remember that a situation doesn’t have to be life-threatening to warrant veterinary attention. Broken toenails, ear infections, bladder infections, and hot spots are all survivable, but they are also painful and are best treated sooner rather than later if possible.

Finally, if you’re in doubt, the safest course of action is always to seek veterinary attention. If your dog has a mild tummy ache and you take him to the vet, no harm will come to him. But if he’s suffering from bloat and you ignore it, he may be dead by the morning.

Now, let’s get on with the big-time emergencies that require immediate veterinary attention in dogs.

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 the vet 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 to the nearest veterinarian.

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 major known 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 seeing the vet 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 go to the vet.

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 always an emergency. If your dog is vocalizing, panting, profoundly limping, or exhibiting other symptoms of agony, don’t let him suffer. Get to a vet for treatment.

12. Known exposure to dangerous poisons

This should precipitate an immediate veterinary visit. If you catch your dog munching on snail bait, don’t wait for the seizures to start before you go to the vet. 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 flavored canine medications such as Rimadyl.

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. And I must also reiterate that if you can’t tell whether your dog needs emergency attention, it’s always safest to take him in.

Next week’s 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 the vet.

The Top 8 Summer Hazards for Dogs


The Top 8 Summer Hazards for Dogs

Keep your dog safe as the weather gets nice with these tips from our resident vet.

Dr. Eric Barchas

I live in San Francisco, where the weather is famously mild. However, we recently enjoyed (and yes, I do mean enjoyed) a heat wave. It was a San Francisco heat wave, so it wasn’t actually very hot. Highs were in the 80s, and almost everyone in town put on their shorts.

My pal Buster and I were not exceptions. However, I think I enjoyed the weather a bit more than he did. He’s a Black Lab who spends plenty of time in the fog. Naturally I didn’t push this dog too hard in weather to which he was not properly acclimatized.

On one of the beautiful days in question, I saw something that made me cringe. A woman was running, in the sun, during the heat of the day, with a French Bulldog.

Folks, if you want to run with a dog, I humbly suggest that you choose a breed other than the French Bulldog. Other so-called brachycephalic breeds — the ones with snubby noses such as Pugs, Shih Tzus, and Boston Terriers, also don’t generally make good running companions. These dogs are prone to a condition called brachycephalic syndrome. This condition is caused by a combination of factors relating to their short snouts, and it can trigger life-threatening respiratory crises. Two things tend to trigger crises: hot days and heavy activity.

I thought about chasing down the woman to warn her, but she was going fast, and my pal Buster and I probably couldn’t have caught her. Plus, nobody likes a busybody. Fortunately, the Frenchie seemed to be extraordinarily fit, and he appeared to be managing the run relatively well.

But the incident got me thinking about the myriad risks prevalent in the summer. There are so many that summer is universally known as the “busy season” at emergency veterinary hospitals. This is partly because more people and dogs are out and about, and so there’s more opportunity for them to get into trouble. This sort of trouble is somewhat unavoidable, unless you don’t want your dog to have any sort of life. However, some summertime risks are well known and avoidable. I’m here to help you avoid them.

Let’s start with the obvious.

1. Heat stroke

Heat stroke occurs most commonly in the summer, especially early in the summer before dogs have had a chance to acclimatize. Older dogs, brachycephalic dogs, and overweight dogs are at a higher risk. It’s best to keep your dog inside or in the shade during the heat of the day, especially early in the summer. Never lock your dog in the car during the warm months. And remember that shady areas may become sunny as the day moves on, so a yard that’s cool and shady at 9 a.m. may be scorching hot at 1 p.m.

2. Sunburn

The strong summer sun does more than warm. Sunburn and skin cancer are surprisingly prevalent in dogs. Short-haired dogs (especially white ones) may be burned almost anywhere on their bodies. Even dogs with plush coats may have thin hair on their abdomen. This is another reason to keep your dog out of the sun when it’s strongest during the middle of the day.

3. Heartworm

Warm weather favors the transmission of heartworm disease. Also, the mosquitoes that carry the parasite are more prevalent during the summer. No part of North America can safely be considered free of heartworm during the summer. Fortunately, safe, monthly preventatives are highly effective. Talk to your vet about testing for heartworm and starting a preventative.

4. Fleas

Mosquitoes aren’t the only insects that are more active and common in the summer. Warm weather also causes fleas to come roaring out. Dogs needn’t have visible flea infestations to suffer from skin problems, ear infections, and other flea-related issues. Now is a good time to make sure your buddy is on a high-quality flea preventative.

5. Ticks

Many of those flea preventatives also prevent ticks. These eight-legged pests spread all kinds of scary disease such as Lyme disease, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, and anaplasmosis. Heavy tick infestations can also cause life-threatening paralysis in dogs. In temperate areas, ticks are more common during the summer. In addition to using a high-quality tick preventative, I recommend that dogs be kept out of brushy areas and tall grasses, which are likely to harbor ticks.

Don’t forget that many of the products available to treat fleas and ticks are not high-quality. They often are not effective and they may carry a high risk of toxicity. Grocery store brands and products made by Hartz, Sergeant’s, and Bio Spot have poor track records, in my experience. Talk to your vet to confirm that your flea and tick product is safe and effective.

6. Fireworks

If God is a dog, then there will be a special place in hell for people who enjoy lighting off fireworks. July 4 is easily my pal Buster’s least favorite day of the year. I am confident that more dogs are lost on July 4 than on any other day, as they burrow under or knock over fences in an effort to get away from what they perceive as armageddon. Even indoor dogs are at risk — I have seen more than one who jumped through plate glass windows in their terror. If your dog hates fireworks, consider getting some tranquilizers from the vet. Or, better yet, go camping with him.

7. Foxtails

Half the vets in California would go out of business if foxtails went extinct. Unfortunately for dogs, there is no prospect of that happening. Also known as grass awns, foxtails are public enemy No. 1 for dogs in areas where they grow. Foxtails are a seasonal threat, with the greatest risk occurring in the summer. They are shaped like arrows, and they are prone to embedding in eyes, ears, noses, the skin, and even the genitals of dogs. They cause immense irritation and pain. They also cause infections, and they can burrow or migrate from one part of the body into another. Every dog owner needs to know what foxtails are. Keep your dog away from them at all times, and search your dog (especially his feet, abdomen, and ears) for foxtails after every walk.

8. Trauma

Finally, I encourage you to enjoy the summer with your dog. But be vigilant. Dog fights, motor vehicle injuries, wildlife altercations, and all other sorts of trauma are more common during the summer simply because there are more dogs (and wild animals) frolicking for longer every day. Pay attention to your dog, use a leash when appropriate, and stay away from dangerous areas such as cliffs and highways (and, some would argue, dog parks).