Macarthur Veterinary Group
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Common Emergencies in Dogs and Cats

This is a partial list of some of the "emergencies" that your pet may encounter. Some are more serious and urgent than others. In virtually all cases, if it happens during our office hours then the first thing you should do is to phone us. If it's after-hours, then these notes may help you provide first aid and deal with minor problems. These notes provide general advice only and do not replace expert diagnosis and care for serious illnesses. Help is always available for genuine emergencies.

Car Accidents: If your pet is hit by a car, it may sustain a variety of injuries, ranging from very minor to severe and fatal. The first thing you should do is to move it off the road if necessary, being careful to prevent further injury to your pet or yourself. Your pet will probably be in some degree of shock, so warmth and reassurance from you are important. Remember, even the most loyal family pet can bite you when it's distressed or in pain.

With severe injuries you should always seek immediate help. In other cases, you can do a lot yourself until veterinary care is available. Your pet will probably be breathing fast and its gums will be a bit pale. This is a normal response to stress. It will also be bruised and may have numerous grazes or small cuts. Pain relief can be given at home, and minor wounds can be cared for.

Cuts, Grazes and Lacerations: These should normally receive first aid at home, and then be checked by a veterinarian later if necessary. They should firstly be cleaned with saline (a mixture of 1 tsp of salt in 1L of warm water). We do not recommend using Dettol®.

If they are still bleeding, then pressure should be applied to control the bleeding. This is best done using gauze swabs and a firmly applied bandage. For very large lacerations, or ones that won't stop bleeding after a few minutes, you should seek veterinary help. If the bleeding stops, just leave the bandage on and have the wound checked in office hours.

For small cuts and grazes that don't need veterinary attention, you can apply some antiseptic such as Betadine® lotion or a thin smear of Savlon® cream. We do not recommend antibiotic powders such as EDP as these often just cake over the wound and hide infections that are developing underneath.

Lameness and suspected Broken Bones: Lameness (limping) will usually not be an emergency, but this will depend on how much pain is involved. Broken bones are a much more serious problem, but even then it is pain relief that is most important initially. X-rays and fracture repairs can normally be delayed until the next day. Fractures where the bone is exposed, or where there's a lot of pain or other injuries, generally require immediate veterinary care.

Animals with sore legs should generally be rested. If the soreness is in the lower half of the leg (below the knee or elbow) then a padded bandage can help to support the leg and alleviate the pain. A thick gauze or cotton bandage covered with Elastoplast is ideal. Pain relieving drugs are also important.

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Poisoning in Dogs and Cats

Snail baits are highly toxic to dogs and cats. If you even suspect that your pet has eaten snail-bait then you should induce vomiting and later give activated charcoal.

If you know that your pet has eaten snail bait, or if they're showing signs such as salivating, tremors or convulsions, then you should seek immediate veterinary help.

Note: Prevention is better than cure. Only lay baits in areas where your pets can't get to them, and store the boxes in a safe place. By all means choose snail baits with bittering agents and pet deterrents, but don't depend on this – many pets still die from these. Baysol® is probably safer to use than Defender®. It's still potentially fatal, but at least there is an antidote available.

Rodenticides (rat and mouse baits) are also toxic. Most affect the ability of the blood to clot. Signs of disease may not be seen for several days or weeks after the poisoning has occurred, and antidotes are usually available. Initial treatment for rat-bait poisoning is to induce vomiting and then give activated charcoal to help absorb any residual poison. If you know that your pet has eaten rat-bait and you can't get them to vomit, you should seek veterinary help. If they do vomit and show no signs of illness, then a trip to the vet within 24 hours is still advised, so that an antidote can be prescribed. Don't forget to bring the packet with you so that we can identify the type of bait. This has a big effect on the dose of antidote used.

Bee Stings are common in puppies and in other dogs who like to snap at flies and bees. They usually occur on the face and result in dramatic swelling, particular of the muzzle and around the eyes. Your dog may also develop "hives" over most of its body. If you can find the sting, you should remove it. In most cases, the swelling will settle down itself, but we can assist this by the use of antihistamines and anti-inflammatory drugs. It's an emergency if the swelling spreads to the throat and starts to cause difficulty breathing.

Spider Bites are generally not as dangerous to dogs and cats as they are to people. In most cases even venomous spiders (eg. Red-backs) will cause only pain and swelling at the site of the bite. Pain relief and antibiotics can help. Anti-venoms are available for severe cases where there is vomiting or muscle paralysis.

Snake Bites can be a much more serious problem. You should identify the snake if at all possible (remember that it's illegal to kill them though). If you know your pet has been bitten by a venomous snake such as a brown snake, red-bellied black snake or tiger snake, you need immediate veterinary help. If you've seen the snake but aren't sure if your pet has been bitten, look for signs such as collapse, breathing difficulties, weakness, tremors and convulsions, vomiting, loss of balance and dilated pupils. Your pet should be rested and if you know that it has been bitten on the leg, apply a pressure bandage.

The good news is that snake venom detection kits for animals are available, so immediate veterinary attention is recommended for the best results. Hospitalisation and intensive supportive treatment is often required.

In our semi-rural area it is imperative that we stay alert in the warmer months, keep your garden cleared of long grass and debris, don’t leave clothes and towels on the floor.  We also recommend walking your pet on a leash to limit the likelihood of them encountering snakes and take extra care when bush-walking, particularly heading to the beach.

Paralysis Ticks are not common in the Macarthur region. They will usually be found only if your pet has been on a coastal holiday with you. The paralysis tick burrows its head into the skin, but the body is always outside, and is a steely blue/grey colour. A tick may be only 1-2mm in size when it first attaches, but grows as it feeds and will usually be 3-5mm or more in size by the time it causes signs of illness. The first signs of illness in your pet are weakness in the hind legs, and perhaps a change in your pet's breathing or its voice/bark. If you find a tick, you can spray it with Frontline spray, but don't pull it out. You should seek veterinary advice if your pet shows signs of weakness or paralysis.

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Whelping and Pregnancy related emergenciesWhelping (giving birth): If your pet is pregnant, then we hope that before the pups/kittens are due, you will have brought her in for a checkup, and found out all you need to know about caring for her during and after the pregnancy. If you haven't done this, then the main things you need to know are:

  • pregnancy usually lasts for about 9 weeks
  • labour can normally last for up to 2 hours for each puppy/kitten. Any longer may indicate a problem.
  • Lots of black or dark green/brown liquid is normal after delivering a puppy or kitten.
  • The mother should quickly remove the membranes and lick the puppy/kitten's face to stimulate breathing. If she doesn't, then you may need to do this yourself (but not with your tongue!).

Abscesses are most common in cats after a fight with another cat. They usually present as a painful lump just below the skin consisting of swollen tissue as well as pus. If the abscess has burst, you may see the pus, or you may just notice the wound after your cat/dog has licked it clean. Abscesses need to be drained (to get the pus out) and treated with antibiotics. After-hours you can treat them temporarily by cleaning up the wound with saline (a mixture of 1 tsp of salt in 1L of warm water). Gentle massage can help to expel the pus. But be careful not to get bitten or scratched! If the abscess has not yet burst then you should look for any wounds or scabs and soak them to remove them. This may allow the pus to escape.

Bones caught in the mouth: This can cause a lot of stress to your dog who will usually salivate and paw at its mouth. But it's generally easily fixed. The bone will usually be lodged over the upper premolar teeth on one side, or across the roof of the mouth. All you need to do is grab the bone with your fingers or a blunt-nosed pair of pliers and pull it out. If possible, you should then check for cuts on the gums and if any are found, a trip to the vet the next day and antibiotics will prevent infection. If you can't get the bone out and your dog is distressed you need veterinary help.

Fishing Hooks are more difficult to remove and are more likely to require veterinary help. NEVER try to pull the hook back out the way it went in. The barb on the hook will tear the flesh and cause a lot of pain. The proper way to remove a hook is to cut the shaft (with diagonal cutting pliers or similar) and then push the point with the barb through the other side. If the point has not already come through the other side then you will probably need veterinary help, but if it has you may be able to do this yourself. A trip to the vet later for a checkup and antibiotics is always a good idea.

Seizures or fits are often caused by epilepsy (even if your pet has had no previous signs of epilepsy) or by poisoning (see above). The most important thing is to keep your pet calm, and stop them from hurting themselves as they are fitting (but keep your fingers out of their mouth or you will get bitten!). If the fit stops, then a trip to the vet the next day is essential to try to identify the cause. If it doesn't stop, or if your pet has repeated seizures, or if you suspect poisoning, then immediate veterinary help is needed.

Vomiting and Diarrhoea can be caused by a huge variety of problems. But initial treatment at home should be the same regardless. The first thing to do is take away all access to food for at least 24 hours. Water should be given frequently - but only in very small quantities (a few laps at a time) if your pet is vomiting. If they are unable to keep the water down, then stop that for at least 2 hours as well - and then try again. If the vomiting is persistent or severe, or if it's accompanied by other signs of illness, then you may need immediate veterinary help. Otherwise, it can probably wait until a consultation the next day. Dogs and cats can get bouts of mild gastroenteritis just like we can, and short-term vomiting is not always an indication of any serious illness.

Constipation is usually not an emergency and can be examined by a vet during a normal consultation. There are 2 exceptions:

  1. They are actually trying to pass urine (wee not poo). See Difficulty Urinating next.
  2. They are in a lot of pain/discomfort with the straining. This is often seen in small puppies where poo has dried in the hairs around the anus (bottom) and the next time they try to go to the toilet; the anal passage has been blocked. This can be fixed by washing or cutting the hair from around the area.

Difficulty Urinating can be a much more serious problem. In male cats, the penis can be blocked completely by a "plug" of crystals that have formed in the bladder. If your cat is straining and passing small amounts of urine this can probably wait until normal consulting hours, even if the urine is bloody. But if he's unable to pass urine at all for a period of 8-12 hours or more, then he needs immediate treatment. This urgent problem is unlikely in dogs or female cats.

Blood in the Urine or Faeces is usually not an emergency unless the bleeding is persistent or occurs in large amounts, or your pet is showing other signs of illness as well. Remember too that a little bit of blood mixed with urine can look much worse than it really is. But an appointment should be made as soon as possible to have this checked.

Heat Stress  If you suspect heat stroke, seek immediate veterinary attention, as delayed hospitalisation increases the risk of death. Core body temperature needs to be lowered gradually, using wet towels and fans for evaporative cooling or placing ice packs around the neck or groin. However, don’t drench your pet with water or cover in ice as this can lead to hypothermia, which can be fatal. Be particularly careful when cooling small animals that can lose body heat very quickly if you leave them wet.

Prevention is ALWAYS better than cure ... always provide your pets with cool, shaded places to lay (e.g. shade cloth or kennel with ventilation) with access to plenty of water. Offer frozen treats or add blocks of ice to their drinking water.

Animals should never be left in a car, even on cool days. Avoid exercise on hot days, and consider trimming off your pets long coat during the summer months – call the clinic to arrange a grooming appointment.   Also consider providing a cool water bath (e.g. dog wading pool) and/or provide access to indoor air conditioning.

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