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When to Take a Dog to the Vet, ASAP

Wondering when to take a dog to the vet immediately? We’ve rounded up a list of situations that need veterinary attention ASAP — and tips on how to handle an emergency situation en route to the vet’s office.

Jackie Brown  |  Dec 27th 2018

It’s every dog owner’s worst nightmare: It’s the middle of the night or a holiday weekend. Your veterinary clinic is closed and something is wrong with your dog. How do you know if what’s going on warrants a trip to the emergency clinic or can wait until you can call your vet the next day? How do you know when to take a dog to the vet, right away?

Wondering when to take a dog to the vet immediately? First, some general guidelines

A dog with a stethoscope and first aid kit.

Do you know when to take a dog to the vet ASAP? Photography ©damedeeso | Getty Images.

“As a general rule of thumb, have your dog seen if he is showing signs of extreme discomfort or pain,” says Lisa Gretebeck, VMD, associate emergency veterinarian at VCA Alexandria Animal Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. Some examples of emergency issues include a severe wound, difficulty breathing, disorientation or vomiting. “The last thing we want is for your dog to be uncomfortable until morning or at risk if something is life-threatening.”

How to transport your dog to the vet in an emergency

In almost all emergencies, transport your dog to your veterinarian or an emergency clinic as quickly as you can. Usually, vets recommend not wasting valuable time trying to administer first aid at home. Don’t give your dog any medication without explicit instructions from a veterinarian.

“Active bleeding is the one circumstance that may be worth taking a moment to apply consistent pressure for the trip,” says Tracey Jensen, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, medical director at Wellington Veterinary Hospital in Wellington, Colorado. “For everything else, grab the keys and go. A quick call ahead to your veterinarian will alert the staff of your impending arrival.”

Be extremely careful when transporting your sick or injured dog. “Try to minimize touching and restraining an injured dog,” Dr. Gretebeck says. “They will be in a lot of pain and stressed, and they may try to communicate this by biting you. I always recommend a muzzle and a second person to help you restrain, if possible. If the dog can get into the car on his own, this is always the best.”

If your dog can’t walk, use a makeshift stretcher like a piece of plywood or cardboard box for a small dog. You can also scoop a small dog up in a large towel or blanket. Keep your face away from your dog’s face when touching him to avoid a bite. “Once you arrive at the veterinarian, allow the veterinary staff to take over moving your pet from your vehicle into the hospital,” says Dr. Jensen, who is also past president of the American Animal Hospital Association. “It will be safer for your pet and for you.”

What happens once you arrive at the vet with an emergency situation

Once you arrive at the hospital, the vet will conduct a complete exam. She might want to run blood work, a urinalysis, and X-rays or other tests like ultrasound or MRI. If you go to an after-hours emergency clinic, your dog might be transferred to your regular vet once the office is open for further care. Vice versa, if you start out at your regular vet, she might want to send him to an emergency clinic if he requires overnight care.

So, wondering when to bring a dog to the vet, stat? Here are a few situations that require a vet’s attention immediately:

1. Bleeding

Some bleeding is visible from the outside (external bleeding), but internal bleeding is not always obvious unless you see blood in your dog’s stool or blood in your dog’s vomit. Excessive bleeding is life-threatening and can cause a dog to go into shock. A dog in shock will have pale gums and will likely appear to be in distress. If your dog is bleeding from a cut or wound, apply pressure with a clean, dry cloth, and get him to a vet immediately.

2. Bloat

Also called gastric dilatation and volvulus, bloat is a condition where the stomach fills with air and twists. Without immediate veterinary care, bloat is often fatal within hours of onset. “Signs of bloat include non-productive retching and drooling, increased respiratory rate and panting, and pacing or inability to get comfortable,” Dr. Jensen says.

3. Breathing Issues

This is one you don’t want to mess around with. If your dog seems to be having trouble breathing (labored breathing, breathing heavily with the head and neck held low, excessive panting), head to a veterinarian immediately. In dogs, a normal respiratory rate is 10 to 30 breaths per minute.

4. Difficulty Walking or Standing

Holding hands with a sick or injured dog.

A dog who can’t stand or walk needs immediate vet attention. Photography ©sanjagrujic | Getty Images.

If your dog suddenly can’t stand up or walk, seek immediate veterinary attention. This can be the sign of a severe illness or injury, whether a back or spinal injury or other neurologic condition, poisoning, internal bleeding or many other potential problems.

5. Poisoning

Signs of poisoning may include disorientation, weakness, tremors, incoordination, extreme lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, bruising and bleeding. If you suspect your dog has ingested something, you can call the Pet Poison Helpline 24/7 to find out if the substance has the potential for poisoning him (855-764-7661; a $59 fee will be charged to your credit card

4. Seizure

A seizure is a neurological condition that usually results in loss of consciousness and muscle spasms. The dog might also fall to the ground, paddle his legs uncontrollably, urinate and defecate. Seizures are upsetting to witness. Some seizures are caused by a disorder like epilepsy, but others are brought on by something else like poisoning, kidney failure, or brain tumors or injuries. Multiple seizures in a short period of time, or one seizure that lasts longer than five minutes, is especially dangerous.

5. Severe Vomiting and/or Diarrhea

Mild vomiting might be able to wait until morning, but if you see bright-red or black blood (which can look like coffee grounds), get your dog to the vet right away. Additionally, seek immediate veterinary treatment for large amounts of bright-red blood in your dog’s diarrhea, bloody diarrhea that’s combined with vomiting, or diarrhea and/or vomiting in a dog who’s acting very sick.

6. Trauma: broken bones, bite wounds, falls, hit by car

Have your dog examined immediately any time you suspect a broken bone, animal bite or other traumatic injury. Even if your dog seems OK after an accident, there could be internal injuries. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Thumbnail: Photography ©Kosamtu | Getty Images.

About the author

Jackie Brown is a freelance writer from Southern California who specializes in the pet industry. Reach her at

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Dogster magazine. Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Dogster magazine delivered straight to you!

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