What to Do Before You Get to the Vet in 12 Emergency Dog Situations

Some health crises need immediate veterinary attention, but your attention is also crucial.

Last Updated on November 18, 2022 by

Last week my column discussed a dozen of the most common and serious canine veterinary emergencies. Once you recognize such an emergency, it is imperative that you get to the vet as soon as possible.

But dogs can’t be magically and instantly transported to the vet. You will have to drive, or take a taxi, or arrange for a ride. If it’s the middle of the night you may decide to dress before heading to the vet (although I can attest from personal experience that plenty of people show up at emergency clinics in bathrobes and slippers). If you’re on a walk you’ll need to get home, or call someone to help you transport your pet. If your dog has collapsed and he is too big for you to lift you will need to find someone to help you get him into the car.

In other words, in the unfortunate event of a veterinary emergency, there will be a period of time — often a very stressful period of time — when you and you alone will be responsible for helping your pet. This article is designed to help you get through that time should it ever come.

There are some general rules that apply to all emergencies. The first three rules of dealing with veterinary emergencies are: stay calm, stay calm, and stay calm. I know from ample firsthand experience that following these rules is easier said than done, but try your best. Another important rule is to avoid injury to yourself (painful dogs often bite their owners, even when it’s completely out of character) and your pet (seizing dogs may fall down stairs). Also, try not to make the situation worse — giving ibuprofen to an injured dog creates a second problem (ibuprofen toxicity), and giving water to a vomiting dog (with the intention of preventing dehydration) may provoke more vomiting and more dehydration. Finally, be sure to call the vet while you’re on your way. This will allow her to prepare for your arrival.

Let’s run through last week’s list of emergencies, with specific recommendations for each one.

1. Difficulty breathing

There are two major enemies of dogs with breathing difficulties: stress and heat. Both dramatically increase oxygen demand. To make matters worse, difficulty breathing is stressful itself, which can increase oxygen demand, make it harder to breathe, and increase stress levels. This may lead to a catastrophic feedback cycle. The first three rules of veterinary emergencies apply especially strongly to dogs who are having trouble breathing, because a frantic owner will lead to a stressed-out dog. Dogs who are having trouble breathing should be kept calm and soothed to the degree appropriate for the individual dog. Fresh, cool circulating air (such as can be provided by a car’s air conditioner) should be available but not forced upon the dog — blasting the air conditioner in his face may increase his stress level. Do everything you can to keep stress levels low en route to the vet, and be sure to call the vet on your way so they can be prepared for your arrival.

2. Bloat

There is very little that can be done at home to help a dog with gastric dilatation with volvulus (GDV, or simply bloat). Your focus must be on getting to the vet as soon as possible. Your dog may be in shock, and his abdomen will be very painful. The nature of bloat makes it impossible to administer anything by mouth, so don’t try. If it is necessary to help him into the car, avoid contacting the area between his last rib and his rear legs. Lift very slowly and gently (with one arm in front of his forelimbs, and the other behind his hindlimbs), but remember that even friendly dogs may bite the faces of people who contact their abdomens when they are bloated.

3) Seizures

Seizing dogs suffer from uncontrollable muscle contractions. This includes the jaw muscles. If any part of your body gets near the mouth of a seizing dog, it may be seriously bitten. Unfortunately, the completely unfounded myth that seizing dogs can swallow their tongues is somehow still being propagated. I have seen many owners’ hands mauled after they tried to grab a seizing dog’s tongue. I also have seen quite a few fractured dog teeth after owners used screwdrivers or other tools to try to access a seizing dog’s tongue. Forget about the tongue — it won’t be swallowed.

Instead, focus on your dog’s surroundings. If he is at the top of a flight of stairs, use a pillow to prevent him from falling. If he is at the foot of a book case, don’t let him knock it over. Wait one to two minutes for the seizure to end, and then head to the vet. If the seizure lasts longer than two minutes, use a thick blanket to scoop up your dog and place him in a carrier or in the car, taking great care not to be bitten. Don’t cover him with the blanket on the road, since seizures cause high body temperature. When you get to the vet’s office, let the vet’s staff take over.

4) Collapse or profound weakness

Don’t delay, and don’t administer medications that you think might help, since they might actually cause more harm than good. Avoid stress, high temperatures, and contact with the abdomen.

5) Profuse hemorrhage or major known trauma

If your dog is bleeding, apply gentle continuous pressure to the area with a towel or something similar, but only if it can be done without causing pain. Take care to be gentle, since aggressive pressure may cause pain and provoke a bite. The same principle applies to dogs who have suffered major trauma. They may be in significant pain, and contact with the traumatized area may exacerbate that pain and trigger a bite. Dogs (even the world’s friendliest) in severe pain are very likely to bite if touched in the wrong spot. When in doubt, use a thick blanket as a sling to get the dog into a carrier or into the car.

6. Protracted vomiting or diarrhea

Perhaps in college you drank to excess one night and wound up spending the night alternating between vomiting and passing out with your head on the rim of the toilet. And perhaps you had a well-meaning friend who insisted that what you needed to do was drink water. I am here to confirm what you always suspected: Your friend was wrong. When a stomach is severely inflamed, ingesting anything can trigger more vomiting. Although dogs don’t generally take tequila shots, the same principle applies to them. Dogs with protracted vomiting or diarrhea should not be fed or offered water. Rather, they should head to the vet for intravenous fluids and resting of the GI tract.

7. Struggling to urinate

The key to this problem is not to let it drag on. Get to the vet as soon as you realize something’s wrong. You know how painful it is when someone presses on your bladder when it is full; your dog will feel the same way. Your dog’s bladder is in the abdomen near the hind legs; don’t apply pressure to that area.

8. Not eating or drinking

Again, don’t let it drag on. Don’t waste two days trying 20 different foods. Go to the vet once the problem is evident.

9. Coughing

Excitement, activity, stimulation of the throat, and stress tend to exacerbate coughing. Stay calm, avoid neck leads, and remember that coughing often is accompanied by difficulty breathing — the No. 1 veterinary emergency.

10. Loss of use of the rear legs

Dogs who are “down in the rear” may be in substantial pain; that pain is often felt most strongly in the back (small breeds) or hips (large breeds). These dogs will need to be lifted into the car. Lift very slowly and gently, supporting the entire back as you do so and taking care not to be bitten. Do not administer non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as Rimadyl, Previcox, Deramax, aspirin, or Metacam — these medications may significantly interfere with your vet’s ability to treat the problem. Human painkillers such as ibuprofen or naproxen (Aleve) can be toxic to dogs, so avoid them as well.

11. Severe pain

Avoid human painkillers; they can be toxic to dogs. And talk to your vet before administering any NSAIDs — as above, such medications may interfere with other treatments. Use a blanket to sling your dog into the car. Remember that even friendly dogs may bite their owners when they are in pain.

12. Known exposure to toxins

My biggest piece of advice is to call your vet as soon as you realize that your dog has consumed something inappropriate. Do not rush to administer hydrogen peroxide or salt (two commonly used substances that sometimes cause vomiting) since both can be very dangerous if they do not work. Toxicological emergencies are complex, and home treatment should be avoided. Immediate veterinary attention can make a huge difference in outcome.

I hope that you and your dog never find yourselves in an emergency situation. But if you do, I hope that these suggestions help you both through the crisis.

Other stories by Dr. Eric Barchas:

Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and your topic might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)

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