Anyone who has ever pulled out a credit card at the emergency clinic for something that wasn’t an emergency comes away wishing for a better knowledge of what constitutes an urgent situation — and what doesn’t. But as big an “ouch” as a nonemergency can be to the budget, it’s a lot better than the opposite situation: an emergency that goes untreated until it’s too late for your pet.
But how can you tell? The signs of a healthy pet are pretty apparent to an observant pet owner: bright, clear eyes with no sign of discharge; clean ears, free of buildup or smell; a mouth not overpowered by its odor, with pink gums free of infection; a nose that appears moist, with no discharge; a shiny coat, with unblemished skin below that snaps back easily when pulled away from the shoulders. A healthy attitude, a healthy appetite and normal thirst are part of the package, too, without signs of intestinal upset. No lameness, no swelling. No heavy panting.
Anything to the contrary is reason for concern. But is it an emergency?
The first way to start finding out is with a thermometer. Pet thermometers are available at pet-supply stores or you can use one designed for humans. Just be sure to put the latter in a special place so there are no mix-ups.
To take your pet’s temperature, put a little water-based lubricant on the tip of the thermometer and insert it in the animal’s fanny. After a minute or so, remove and check the temperature. Normal is between 100 and 102.5 for dogs and cats; anything below 99 or above 103 is worth checking with a veterinarian, day or night.
Some other trouble indicators include seizure, fainting or collapse, as well as any suspected poisoning, including antifreeze, rodent or snail bait, or human medication. Snake or spider bites, too, demand immediate attention. Cats in particular can be fatally sensitive to insecticides (such as flea-control medications that are safe for dogs), petroleum-based products or medications such as Tylenol.
Sometimes situations that might not seem urgent really are, even such as mild eye injuries or allergic reactions — swelling around the face or hives. A single incident of vomiting or diarrhea is probably nothing, but anything more than two or three times within an hour or so could indicate a serious problem. Other signs of possible serious conditions are breathing problems, chronic coughing, or difficulties urinating or defecating, especially in cats.
Animals can sometimes seem fine after accidents, such as being hit by a car, exposed to extreme heat or cold, or being cut or bitten. Beware! Your pet may have internal problems that may be lethal if not attended to quickly.
There are also situations that may not be life-threatening but are certainly painful enough to warrant immediate veterinary attention. Some of the signs of an animal in pain include panting, labored breathing, lethargy or restlessness, loss of appetite, aggression, hiding or crying out. While it may be possible to wait until your regular veterinarian is available, put yourself in your pet’s place. Don’t let your pet suffer!
Make best use of this column by saving it in your phone book and writing the phone number of your regular veterinarian and the phone number and directions to the nearest emergency clinic on it, so all the information is ready when you need it. And always remember: When in doubt, call a veterinarian.
It’s better to make a trip you needn’t have than to miss the one you should have made.