The question that’s sometimes hard to answer when you’re a pet owner is, “when is it an emergency”? Our pets can’t tell us, so what do you do when they’re limping or throwing up and it’s 10:30 at night? Do you call the vet, knowing that you could be worrying about something that’s not really a big deal and may pass, or do you take the risk and wait until the morning?


When to call the vet?

The first thing to remember is that calling is never the wrong thing to do. It’s better to be safe than sorry, and you’re responsible for your pet’s well-being. Don’t feel embarrassed about calling and finding that it’s a false alarm. Vets are used to getting calls from worried pet owners, and emergency 24-hour vet hospitals that have on-call vets and nursing care, can be found in most areas.


No one knows your pet like you do, therefore other than your vet you’re the best person to tell when something is awry. If your pet is behaving unusually then it could be a sign that’s something is wrong, and as illnesses can quickly progress it’s important to pay attention to the early signs, no matter how subtle. You should check whether you’ve discovered something that could be a real problem, and an emergency vet will ask some questions and be able to tell whether you should take the pet to hospital. If they think it’s something that can wait until normal business hours the next day they’ll let you know, so that you can avoid a night of disturbance for you and your pet, as well as a more expensive vet bill. You’re better to call and find out that nothing is wrong, than risk your pet’s health or your peace of mind when there’s help at hand.


Signs that something is wrong

Sometimes there are signs that something is definitely wrong, and in the following cases you should take your pet to the vet:


  • Hit by a car, or experienced a trauma such as falling from a height of more than a metre, or being hit by a blunt object
  • Suspected broken bones
  • Any sign of extreme pain such as shaking, whining or crying
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhoea for more than a day
  • Unable to urinate, or straining to urinate
  • Vomiting or coughing blood
  • Blood in urine or faeces
  • Bleeding from the eyes nose or mouth
  • Appears to have an eye injury or seems to become suddenly blind
  • Unconsciousness / won’t wake up
  • Suddenly cannot stand or collapses
  • Walking like they’re drunk, bumping into things, disoriented
  • Swollen abdomen which is hard to the touch
  • Gagging and trying to vomit
  • Isn’t breathing, or you can’t detect a heartbeat
  • Difficulty breathing, choking, or something caught in their throat
  • Seizures – has had one or is having one
  • Any symptoms of heatstroke
  • Potential poisoning such as toxic plants, insecticides, rat bait, antifreeze, cleaning products, or medicine that wasn’t prescribed
  • A pregnant dog or cat that has gone more than three hours between delivering babies

What to do when emergency strikes

If you detect any of the symptoms above, seek veterinary assistance immediately. If you can’t reach a vet right away, keep calling until you find one who can help you. Don’t settle for leaving a voicemail message or an email, as you don’t know how long it will take for them to reply. Most vet hospitals that don’t handle emergencies will have a recorded message on their phone providing the details of where to go for 24/7 emergency assistance. Vets’ websites usually refer to them as well.


Keep the details of your nearest 24-hour vet recorded in multiple places where you’re likely to look for them in an emergency. Add them to Contacts in your mobile phone, and make sure that anyone you share your home with knows where to find them. Sticking them on the fridge door is a popular option, as well as adding them to other emergency contact lists. Some states and other countries have poison hotlines, some of which cater specifically for animal poisoning, but in South Australia poisoning should be referred to an emergency vet.


Being prepared will save time in the long run

Once the decision has been made to take your pet for emergency treatment, make sure you know how to get there quickly and safely before you set out. Time is of the essence, and it will be more difficult to work it out during the journey, particularly if you’re caring for sick animal while on the road. Don’t speed or take unnecessary risks; being pulled up by the police will delay your journey.


Being prepared is the best way to deal with emergencies. It can be hard to remain calm and have crystal clear thinking when you’re worried about your pet, especially when you may not know what’s wrong. Knowing what to do if an emergency arises and getting your vet’s advice in advance of where to take them, will help save time and anxiety when there’s a problem.


Transporting injured and sick animals

Whilst every situation is different, there are some general rules to follow when transporting injured and sick pets, and the first is to minimise handling of the animal as much as possible. Allow the animal to decide what’s comfortable, and while encouraging them to lie down and remain still may help them to relax, don’t force them to. Wrapping them in soft towels or a blanket can help to keep pressure off injuries and keep them warm.


Handle them carefully and with caution, as you won’t know whether there are injuries you can’t see or internal bleeding, and try to minimise movement. An animal that’s been hit by a car or had an impact trauma could have spinal injury, and they should be moved onto a firm flat support such as an ironing board. Kitchen cupboard doors usually detach easily and may also be an option. Take this approach with unconscious or paralysed animals as well, and keep their neck and back straight and supported when moving them onto the carrier. If a firm and flat support isn’t available, a large towel or blanket can substitute as a stretcher, but extra care will be required to minimise movement of their spine and neck.


Plan ahead when travelling

If you’re travelling with your pet, take a first aid kit, and research where you’ll find an emergency vet at your destination, before you leave home. First aid kits can be purchased online from Animal Welfare League, and St John Ambulance. AWL also offers first aid courses.


In cases other than those listed above for which veterinary attention is essential, it’s important to trust your instincts when making the decision of whether to seek after hours veterinary assistance. You have the right to be concerned if something seems wrong, and no one knows and loves your pet the way you do.

Vets4Pets has a 24/7 emergency centre which operates 365 days a year and is situated at Golden Grove. For residents in North Eastern suburbs, it’s only a quick drive away and your pet will have immediate access to a professionally trained team with advanced equipment to provide emergency treatment. Our doctors and nurses ensure a pleasant and friendly environment for both patients and their owners so you can rest assured that your pet is in the right hands.


When it comes to emergencies, knowing what to look for and where to turn for help, are key to ensuring the best outcome for your pet. Accidents happen, and making rational decisions in the middle of the night can be daunting, so don’t hesitate to call for help.