Get rates for your pet:

See My Rates »
Retrieve a Saved Quote

Is This an Emergency?

By Colleen Williams
April 2, 2012 • 4 min. read
dog at vet

Reviewed for accuracy on March 29, 2020 by Zac Pilossoph, Fear-Free Certified DVM, CAVM

It’s always frightening when your pet becomes injured or ill. However, how do you tell if your pet’s condition is serious enough that it requires veterinary attention? It can be difficult to know where the line exists between a true medical emergency and one which can either be watched and monitored or treated at home. Although it is impossible to list every condition possible, below is a short but helpful A to Z list of some common presentations that may be seen while at home, and the basics for how to problem-solve and proceed.


Most cases of diarrhea are not emergency situations, but if the condition continues for more than two to three days, it is recommended to see your veterinarian for further evaluation and care. Some of the more common conditions that cause mild to moderate diarrhea are a food allergy (with chicken, beef, and dairy being the most common, grain being the least), eating something they shouldn’t, such as getting into the trash, or an on-going parasite. Diarrhea is sometimes accompanied by vomiting.

If diarrhea continues for two days, put your pet on a bland diet such as plain scrambled eggs and boiled brown rice. Make sure water is readily available so your pet can stay hydrated. After 2-3 days, gradually transition them back to their regular food. If the diarrhea continues, then it’s time to visit your veterinarian.


If there is ever a concern for over-heating it is always a medical emergency, as this condition can cause serious internal damage and become life-threatening extremely quickly. if you suspect your pet has heatstroke, seek immediate veterinary care. Try to lower your pet’s body temperature with the following techniques:

  • Run a cool (not cold) bath or shower
  • Place ice packs or bags of frozen veggies on your pet’s head and abdomen
  • Hose your pet down with cool water
  • Massage your pet’s limbs and torso to improve circulation

Make sure your pet has lots of cold water to drink and keep him or her out of direct sunlight until you can reach a vet clinic.


In cold temperatures young pets and outdoor cats are especially susceptible to hypothermia. If your pet becomes wet in low temperatures, this also puts him or her at risk. Shivering is the main sign of hypothermia, but weakness, lethargy, and shallow breathing may also occur. Suspected hypothermia is almost always considered a medical emergency; seek emergency veterinary care.

Limb Injury

If your pet is limping or completely unable to put weight on a limb, there are several possible causes for this, from minor to more severe. Occasional limping or hopping could indicate something like a broken toenail or foreign object stuck in between paw pads. If the leg is at an unnatural angle and your pet cannot bear weight, it could be fractured or dislocated. Severe swelling and inability to bear weight can mean a severe ligament tear.

If a minor injury is suspected, there are a few at-home remedies that can be tried prior to seeing a veterinarian. Some of these include applying a cold compress (an ice pack wrapped in a towel so that the pack never touches the skin) to the affected area of pain or swelling for 15-20 minutes if tolerated, along with restricting exercise and movement for 1-2 days can be a safe way to tell if your pet will be able to recover on his or her own. If the limping persists or worsens after one to two days, make an appointment with your vet.


Any case of where you are concerned that your pet ingested a potential toxin or poison of any kind is an emergency situation. The best first step to take if your pet is still asymptomatic is to call the Pet Poison Helpline at 800-213-6680. If your pet is already acting abnormal, then it is recommended to immediately go to the vet and once there, contact Pet Poison Hotline. Do not force your pet to vomit or administer any medications without medical advice or direction to do so.

There are numerous types of poisonous substances around us every single day that pets can accidentally ingest or be exposed to. Inhaled toxins, such as insecticides, household chemicals, and smoke, can be very dangerous and cause coughing, gagging, struggling to breathe, and seizures. Take your pet to the nearest vet clinic immediately if any of these signs are witnessed.

Ingested toxins are by far the most common way in which a pet can become poisoned. It is important to remember though that chemicals (rodenticides, detergent, anti-freeze, motor oil), medications (anti-depressants, blood pressure medications, anti-clotting medications) as well normal human foods (onions, garlic, grapes, dark chocolate, avocados) can all act as common household toxins to pets. Again, for any questions or concerns whatsoever, contact the Pet Poison Hotline at any time of day, your vet or an emergency veterinarian if abnormalities have already begun to show. The most common first symptoms can be weakness, vomiting, or even seizures.

In the case of a suspected topical poison or irritant, at-home treatment will suffice in many cases, unless your pet’s skin has been burned or appears severely irritated. Wearing latex gloves, wash the area with baby shampoo or unscented soap and then thoroughly rinse with warm water. If any burns, blisters, or rashes are present after washing, seek veterinary care immediately.


Vomiting is one of the most difficult abnormalities to triage while at home. In most cases, one episode of vomiting is not worrisome, but make sure to keep a close eye on your pet for the next 12-18 hours. Keep them inside and away from anything they may eat that could promote further upset stomach. Try to prevent them from eating grass, leaves, or sticks, which are some items pets will sometimes eat when they feel nauseous in an effort to promote further vomiting. If your pet is an adult and has been otherwise healthy, withholding food for 12 hours while supplying free access to water in small amounts can help to restore a pet’s belly back to normal.

If your pet continues to experience vomiting for more than 24 hours, it is then recommended to, seek immediate veterinary attention.

No matter what type of injury or illness your pet has, the most important thing a pet parent can do is remain calm. Animals can sense stress and will become more nervous if they detect that their parents are as well. Remain composed, remember that the phrase “better to be safe than sorry” always remains true, and try to soothe your pet until you can gain medical attention if it is thought to be appropriate.

The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinarian advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical diagnosis, condition, or treatment options.

colleen williams
By Colleen Williams

Over the past decade, Colleen has written about health, wellness, beauty, and even pets for The New York Times, The Cut, Refinery29, xoVain, Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, and Seattle Met Magazine, as well as many beauty brands. She has a BFA in Art History from the University of New Mexico and an AAS in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design in New York.

Show more