Canine emergencies can happen at any time or place, and being a prepared dog-owner greatly improves your pet's chances of a successful outcome. Below are descriptions of some of the most common emergencies you may encounter during your years of dog ownership. Knowing the signs of these medical situations is the first step toward ensuring the best emergency care for your canine companion.
1. GDV or Bloat
Bloat is the common term for the condition in which a dog's stomach greatly distends with air, food, and/or fluid. The stomach is then at risk for twisting on itself, which is called gastric dilatation and volvulus, or GDV. During GDV, the stomach can rotate on its axis anywhere from 90 to 360 degrees. When this occurs, blood flow is obstructed to vital organs beyond the stomach, leading to shock and death.
The signs of GDV include:
- Unproductive retching or gagging
- Visibly distended abdomen (belly)
- Sudden and severe abdominal pain
- Arched or hunched posture
- Pale gums
GDV can become life-threatening within minutes of the onset of signs. You should get your dog to a veterinarian as soon as possible, and prepare for treatments including intravenous fluids, antibiotics, pain medication, and surgery.
Certain dog breeds that have a deep-chested body type are more commonly affected with this condition. These breeds include German shepherds, standard poodles, Great Danes, and Doberman pinschers. There are many opinions as to the causes of GDV in dogs. Stress and a nervous or anxious temperament are generally accepted by most veterinarians as predisposing factors. Gastropexy (a surgery where the stomach is permanently sutured to the body wall to prevent rotation) can be done to prevent the development of GDV in more commonly affected breeds.
You can read a more in-depth article about GDV here.
2. Spinal Disease/ Paralysis
A sudden loss of coordination or movement of the hind legs in your pet signals a need for emergency care. The most common cause of these signs is a herniated disc in the spine (often called intervertebral disc disease or IVDD). If your dog is affected by IVDD, he may start showing pain or arching of the back. Signs that things are getting worse include walking on the tops of the feet rather than the bottoms, uncoordinated or "drunk" walking, and complete loss of all movement to the hind legs.
Your dog should be evaluated right away if any of these signs develop. Dachshunds are the leading breed for developing IVDD, but beagles and cocker spaniels are also commonly affected.
Your veterinarian may prescribe medication as well as strict cage rest for several weeks in mild cases of IVDD. If the signs are severe or the condition progresses, surgery is necessary to decompress the area of spinal damage and remove the offending disc.
You can read a more in-depth article about IVDD here.
3. Vomiting and/or Diarrhea
Vomiting and diarrhea are probably the two most common reasons emergency veterinarians see their canine patients. There are literally hundreds of causes for these signs in dogs, but the most concerning of these are viral infections and ingestion of foreign objects.
Viral infections include the dreaded and highly-contagious parvovirus. This intestinal virus is most aggressive in young and unvaccinated dogs. The virus causes the intestinal tract to slough its surface, which owners see as severe bloody vomit and diarrhea. The virus also limits the dog's ability to fight off infection by attacking the white blood cells in the bone marrow. Puppies will be extremely weak and lethargic from dehydration. Hospitalization and intense treatment is required to prevent these patients from developing secondary infections, which can be fatal.
Dogs, especially young dogs, are notorious for eating foreign objects. When such an object becomes lodged in the intestinal tract, vomiting, sometimes unproductive, usually follows. If you have seen your dog ingest an object or if he has been vomiting frequently, you should seek veterinary care. An abdominal x-ray may be needed for diagnosis. Some objects can be retrieved non-surgically (either through induced vomiting or with an endoscope), while others require an exploratory surgery.
You can read more about vomiting in dogs here.
You can read more about diarrhea in dogs here.
Dogs can have seizures for a variety of reasons. If your dog has a single seizure and then recovers normally, a phone call to your veterinarian to discuss a visit the following day is in order. If your dog has multiple seizures, a seizure that lasts longer than five minutes, or if he does not return quickly to his normal activity after a single seizure, you should treat the situation as an emergency, and seek veterinary care right away.
Causes of seizures include epilepsy, brain tumors, low blood sugar, ingestion of poisons or toxins, liver and kidney disease, and head trauma. Regardless of the cause, you can expect your veterinarian to check blood work and to discuss other appropriate testing and medications depending on the suspected cause of the seizures.
It is important to remember that, during a seizure, your pet is not aware of his behavior. Do not try to hold or handle your pet during this time. Keep your dog away from any areas where he could be injured (such as stairs), and keep your hands away from his mouth to prevent any unintentional bite wounds.
Hemoabdomen is the medical term for blood accumulation in the abdominal cavity. Internal bleeding within the abdomen can occur from several causes including certain toxins (especially rat and mouse poison) or trauma, but it is most commonly due to the rupture of a tumor in the spleen. Even though a tumor may have been growing over several months, the signs detected by an owner will be sudden in onset. Because of sudden blood loss at the time of the tumor rupture, the dog will show signs of circulatory shock including pale gums, profound weakness, rapid heart rate, and collapse. You can read more about hemangiosarcoma, the most common tumor to affect the canine spleen, in this article.
Hemoabdomen, regardless of the cause, is a serious emergency, and veterinary care should not be delayed. Expect to have blood tests and x-rays performed upon your arrival at the emergency room while life-saving measures (such as intravenous fluids and blood transfusions) are started. Many times, surgery is necessary to control the hemorrhage; however, in the case of splenic tumors, the disease may have already spread to other locations.
6. Allergic Reactions
The most common serious allergic reactions that dogs experience are due to vaccinations, medications, and venomous insect stings (bees and wasps). Reactions can range from mild signs, such as facial swelling and hives, to severe signs of shock. Phone your veterinarian at the first signs of any facial swelling because you may be given a dose of antihistamine over the phone and be spared a trip to the emergency clinic. If swelling persists or signs worsen, you should seek emergency care, which will likely include injections of antihistamines and corticosteroids.
7. Hit by Car Injuries
Dogs are often victims of automobile accidents, and the extent of injuries range from mild to fatal. The most common injuries from car encounters include fractures, lung injuries, head trauma, bladder or spleen rupture, and severe bruising. It is always advised to have your pet examined after being hit by a car, even if he appears normal because many injuries may appear or worsen over the hours following the accident.
Animal Poison Control Hotline
Dogs are curious and playful and often encounter toxins around their household and outdoor environment. Signs of toxicity depend on the type of toxin that is ingested. If you suspect your pet has been exposed to a toxin, you should phone your veterinarian to discuss treatment recommendations. For a fee, you can obtain information and treatment recommendations on pet poisonings from the ASPCA Poison Control Center 24 hours a day (888-426-4435).
Some of the most commonly reported toxins in emergency canine patients are:
- Rodent poison
- Snail and slug bait
- Human prescription medications
- Over-the-counter medications (including Tylenol and Advil)
You can read more about human foods that are toxic to dogs here.
You can read about wintertime hazards for dogs here.
You can learn more about springtime dangers for dogs here.
Read about the top 10 toxicities reported in dogs in 2014 here.
9. Bite Wounds
Dog fights are a common reason for your pet to end up in the emergency room. Some of the wounds can be obvious, with external lacerations and visible bleeding. When little dogs are shaken by larger dogs, the external wounds are often only the tip of the iceberg. Many times, internal bleeding from compression and shaking can lead to life-threatening injuries that are not always visible. These small dogs often develop signs of shock (pale gums, rapid heart rate, and weakness) by the time they arrive at the emergency hospital, indicating that there is likely internal blood loss. Emergency veterinarians have even created the term BDLD to describe these "big dog, little dog" encounters and associated injuries.
You should seek emergency care for all bite wounds that affect your dog so that your veterinarian may thoroughly evaluate the wounds and prescribe appropriate antibiotics for your pet. Occasionally the wounds will develop large pockets called abscesses under the skin that require surgical placement of a drain to help with healing. With the more severe internal injuries in smaller dogs, surgical exploration may be required.
A dog may collapse for several reasons, including heat stroke, low blood sugar, heart disease, or laryngeal disease. Regardless of the cause, owners must recognize the urgency of this condition and should make every effort to have their dog transported for emergency care without delay.
Puppies, especially of small breeds, that collapse are often found to have low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) which can be treated with intravenous (into a vein) dextrose (sugar) with generally good outcomes. In most cases, the low blood sugar episodes resolve as the dog grows, and owners are advised to use nutritional supplements and small, frequent feedings until adulthood. Other times, a hypoglycemic puppy may be diagnosed with a congenital (acquired from birth) liver condition called a portosystemic shunt, which requires surgical correction.
Some dogs that develop heart rhythm abnormalities (arrhythmias) present to the emergency room having collapsed. The veterinarian can usually detect an abnormality during the physical exam that will lead to this diagnosis.
Dogs with a history of progressively noisier breathing or poor tolerance to heat may collapse due to a decreased functioning of the larynx (the curtains in the back of the throat that open and close with breathing), which prevents them from panting normally and raises their body temperature.
Knowing the main signs of these ten common dog emergencies will help you be prepared to seek life-saving help for your best friend.
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