Navigating Pet Emergencies: When to Take Action and What Steps to Follow

December 1, 2023

Medically reviewed by Brad Waffa, DVM, Ruby Wistreich, RVT

Pets bring immense joy and companionship to our lives, but as responsible pet owners, it’s important to be prepared for emergencies. Just like humans, animals can face unexpected health crises, accidents, or injuries. Knowing how to recognize a pet emergency and taking prompt action can make all the difference in ensuring your pet receives the necessary care.

Recognizing Signs of Distress:

Understanding when your pet is in distress is the first step in responding to emergencies. You will know your pet’s normal behavior, but keep an eye out for any of the following signs:

  • Changes in Breathing: An increased respiratory effort or abnormal respiratory noises can indicate respiratory issues. Increased respiratory rate or even panting, with no apparent underlying cause, can also indicate a problem.
  • Uncontrolled Bleeding: Severe bleeding from wounds or any part of the body requires immediate attention.
  • Lethargy and hyporexia:Sudden lack of energy or disinterest in moving or eating can signal underlying health problems.
  • Vomiting and Diarrhea: Persistent vomiting or diarrhea can lead to dehydration and may indicate other serious issues.
  • Collapse or Weakness: If your pet collapses or seems unable to stand, seek immediate veterinary attention.
  • Seizures: Uncontrolled shaking or seizures require urgent veterinary care.
  • Inability to Urinate or Defecate: This could indicate a blockage or other serious issues. In male cats especially, a urinary blockage can be life-threatening.
  • Changes in Gum Color: Pale or purple/blue gums suggest poor circulation and/or insufficient oxygen and is considered an emergency.

Immediate Actions to Take:

When faced with a pet emergency, remain calm and take action. Here’s a guide on what to do in various situations:

  • Stay Calm: Your pet can sense your emotions, so it’s important to stay as calm as possible.
  • Assess the Situation: Before taking action, assess the severity of the situation. Determine if your pet is conscious, breathing, and responsive.
  • Contact the Vet: Call your veterinarian or the nearest emergency/urgent care pet clinic (like Truss Vet!) immediately. Describe the situation and follow their instructions.
  • Handle with Care: Injured or distressed animals may react defensively. Approach your pet carefully, avoiding sudden movements that might cause additional stress.
  • Control Bleeding: If your pet is bleeding, apply gentle pressure to the wound with a clean cloth or bandage. If possible, elevate the injured area.
  • Stabilize Fractures and Breaks: If your pet has a broken or fractured bone, try to immobilize the area and be cautious not to cause additional harm.
  • Transportation: Plan your transportation before an emergency occurs. Ensure you have a reliable vehicle to use or borrow. If you have to take public transportation, research what their policies are on pets.

Common Pet Emergencies and Specific Actions:

  • Poisoning: If you suspect your pet has eaten something poisonous, contact your veterinarian or a poison control hotline immediately. Do not attempt to induce vomiting without a professional. You can contact ASPCA Poison control by calling this number: 888-426-4435.
  • Heatstroke: Move your pet to a cooler environment, provide water to drink, and seek veterinary attention immediately.
  • Seizures: Clear and/or pad the area around your pet to prevent injury, and time the duration of the seizure(s). Do not attempt to immobilize your pet as they can bite involuntarily when seizing. Contact your veterinarian promptly.
  • Burns: For thermal burns, cool the affected area with cold water (not ice). For chemical burns, rinse the area with copious amounts of water and seek immediate veterinary care.
  • Insect Bites or Stings: Remove the stinger if visible and apply a cold compress. Monitor for signs of an allergic reaction, such as difficulty breathing, and seek veterinary attention.
  • Snake Bite: Call a veterinarian immediately. Monitor your pet for swelling around the bite and their breathing.

Preventive Measures and Preparedness:

While emergencies are unpredictable, certain measures can help reduce the risk and help you respond effectively:

  • Know the Nearest Urgent Care or ER: Familiarize yourself with the nearest Urgent Care or ER, and have their contact information readily available. (Truss Vet has locations in Durham and Cary.)
  • Pet Insurance: Consider investing in pet insurance to alleviate financial concerns before emergencies. The last thing you want to be thinking about when your pet is facing an emergency is the medical bill. And you can’t get coverage for an event that has already occurred.
  • Identification: Ensure your pet wears a collar with an updated ID tag, and also ensure your pet is microchipped for added security. This helps veterinary professionals quickly identify your pet in an emergency situation.
  • Regular Vet Check-ups: Routine veterinary visits can help identify potential health issues before they become emergencies.
  • Ensure a safe environment: Be diligent about providing a safe environment for your pets. This may include being extra cautious when eating or cooking with food that is toxic to pets, securing trash and toys, monitoring your dog’s activity with bones and other chews, and/or limiting your dog’s hours at the park.

No one knows your pet better than you, and being a responsible pet owner means more than just providing love and care. It’s about being ready for the unexpected. Recognizing when your pet might be in trouble, staying calm, and taking quick action when necessary. By knowing what to look out for, having a plan, and having a good relationship with a reliable local vet (like Truss Vet!), you’ll be better prepared to handle potential issues.


Worried about your dog or cat? Reach out to Truss Vet by giving us a call, booking online, or visiting one of our locations.