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Ask a Vet: 10 Signs Your Dog Needs Vet Care ASAP - Wag!

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By Emily Bayne

Published: 06/30/2022, edited: 06/30/2022

Reviewed by a licensed veterinary professional: Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS

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Overview

Sometimes, it's hard to know if your dog is having an emergency or not . For example, vomiting could indicate anything from mild stomach upset to a serious condition, like poisoning. Not to mention that dogs can be surprisingly good at hiding their pain and symptoms from their humans.

How do you know if your dog needs emergency veterinary care? Here are the top 10 signs your dog needs to go to the vet ASAP, according to Dr. Linda Simon MVB MRCVS, veterinary surgeon and member of Wag's licensed veterinary team.

sick brown and white basset hound dog lying under a gray blanket

Sudden abdominal bloating

Nearly everyone dog gets bloated from time to time. Overeating, water retention, and hormones are common reasons humans bloat, and while it might be uncomfortable, it's rarely anything to worry about. However, bloating in dogs is a different story. 

Abdominal distention can signal a number of troubling conditions in dogs, which is why it's vital to take your pet to get checked if their tummy starts swelling. The top 3 potential causes of bloating in dogs are:

  • Gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV)¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†
  • Peritonitis
  • Cushing's disease

Let's take a closer look at each one.

Possible causes of sudden abdominal bloating in dogs

Gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV)      

Gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV), or bloat, occurs when a dog's stomach changes position in their body. The stomach inflates and may turn or completely flip, interfering with the blood supply to vital organs ‚ÄĒ but that's not all. This condition can send dogs into shock and stimulate the release of toxic chemicals that can cause organ failure. Sadly, this condition is almost always deadly without prompt medical intervention.

Treatment for bloat involves decompresing the stomach either with a stomach tube or a large needle. Dogs will need surgery to repair any twists in the stomach and tack the stomach to prevent it from happening again. The dog will likely need IV fluids, antibiotics, and pain medication to keep them comfortable and prevent secondary conditions. The prognosis is good if the dogs receive treatment soon after symptom onset, but delays in treatment can prove deadly for severe cases.

Peritonitis   

Inflammation of the abdominal cavity membrane (called the peritoneum) can also cause sudden swelling and extreme pain. Peritonitis can result from several conditions, including:

  • Injuries
  • Bacterial infections
  • Organ rupture
  • Ulcers¬†
  • Tumors
  • Diverticulitis¬†¬†¬†¬†

Treatment of this condition will depend on the cause and whether or not infection is present. Animals with peritonitis will need in-patient care and IV fluids, and some pets may require a feeding tube. Surgery to flush the abdominal cavity may be necessary if the vet suspects chemical contamination is a contributing factor or if there's evidence of infection. During recovery, dogs may be given a prescription diet, antibiotics to fight off infection, and pain medication.

Cushing's disease     

Cushing's disease (aka hyperadrenocorticism) is an endocrine condition caused by overactive adrenal or pituitary glands, which can trigger abdominal swelling. Other symptoms include dull fur, excessive hunger and thirst, abnormal cortisol levels, and fatigue. Tumors of the pituitary or adrenal glands and overuse of steroids can also contribute to this condition. 

Most cases of Cushing's disease are treated with medications that regulate the amount of cortisone produced by the body. If tumors are present, surgery may be recommended to remove them. However, due to potential risks and complications, surgery is usually only available to dogs diagnosed with adrenal-dependent Cushing's disease that hasn't spread to other areas of the body.

person holding a brown and white dog's mouth to reveal their gums

Pale or white gums

If you notice your pet's gums have gone from a healthy pink to a pale white, you need to get to a vet ASAP. The color of your pet's mucus membranes is an indicator of their overall health, and discoloration can signal problems with their oxygen levels and blood supply. Below are some common causes of pale gums in dogs.

Possible causes of pale gums in dogs

Anemia

Pale gums are a classic sign of anemia, as is fatigue, poor appetite, and exercise intolerance. Anemia occurs when an animal doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells to transport oxygen through the body.

With autoimmune hemolytic anemia, a dog's body attacks its own blood cells, substantially reducing their healthy red blood cell count and blood oxygenation. Anemia can also stem from internal bleeding, malnutrition, parasite infestation, illness, or recent toxin ingestion.

Thankfully, there are treatments to cure many types of anemia. Blood transfusions can help boost oxygen and red blood cell levels until the dog's body can catch up. Immunosuppressants are useful in preventing further cellular destruction in dogs with autoimmune anemia. Anemia due to underlying conditions like intestinal bleeding, poisoning, or malnutrition will usually resolve on its own over time once the vet addresses the root cause.

Serious illnesses 

Serious illnesses can also cause pale gums. For this reason, vets will want to perform bloodwork to rule out cancer and kidney disease when a dog presents with this symptom.

Dogs with cancer may also be swollen, lethargic, and have significant weight changes, but the exact symptoms will depend on the type of cancer. Prognosis will vary on a case-by-case basis, but there are some treatments with fairly good success rates for cases detected early. Radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery can help eliminate cancerous tissue and slow disease progression in many cases.

Kidney disease and cancer share many symptoms, but kidney disease has a few unique signs too. Chemical-smelling breath, poor coordination, bloody or clear urine, and increased thirst all indicate kidney disease, especially when coupled with pale gums.  

Treatment for kidney disease includes fluid therapy, medications, and dialysis to help filter toxins from the dog's blood. Dogs with acute kidney failure due to poisoning can recover fully with prompt vet care. However, with severe, chronic kidney failure, which is irreversible, vets often focus on making the pet comfortable and prolonging their life.


Rapid breathing

Rapid breathing (aka tachypnea) is defined as a resting breathing rate of 30 or more breaths per minute in an adult dog. This can be a sign of serious (and sometimes life-threatening) issues. Below are some common causes of rapid breathing in dogs.


"We may see a temporary increase in respiratory rate while sleeping (due to REM/dreams), but a continuous fast respiratory rate for no apparent reason needs urgent veterinary investigation." ‚ÄĒ Dr. Linda Simon MVB MRCVS


Possible causes of rapid breathing in dogs

Intense pain from illness or injury 

Rapid breathing may indicate that your dog is in severe pain ‚ÄĒ this could be due to illnesses or injury. If you notice your dog breathing heavily, wincing when you touch them, crying out, or behaving abnormally, chances are they're hurting somewhere and need a vet visit ASAP.

The vet can perform diagnostic tests and imaging scans to find and treat the underlying problem. They will also be able to provide pain relief to keep your pet comfortable in the meantime. 

Heatstroke   

Rapid breathing, excessive drooling, vomiting, and poor coordination are classic signs of heatstroke in dogs. If your pet displays these symptoms during hot weather, take your dog to a vet ASAP. Heatstroke can cause organ damage and death if left untreated, but with prompt care, IV fluids, and external cooling measures, dogs can often make a recovery. 

Anxiety

Rapid breathing isn't always due to illnesses or injuries ‚ÄĒ sometimes, it just means your dog is worked up. Fireworks, storms, and vet visits can cause dogs to breathe rapidly or even hyperventilate. Pet parents may be able to treat anxiety at home with remedies like compression wraps, pheromone sprays, and other anxiety products for dogs. Still, more severe cases may require anti-anxiety meds or a behavioral therapist.


"There are various causes of seizures in dogs, especially in smaller breeds, which may be attributable to developmental disorders, poisoning, liver disease, head trauma, neurological conditions, among other causes." ‚ÄĒ Dr. Callum Turner DVM

A seizure

Seeing your pet have a seizure is a frightening experience, especially when they've never had one before. If your pet has a seizure with no history of epilepsy, get to a vet ASAP since seizures can indicate damage or structural problems within the brain.

Possible causes of seizures in dogs

Epilepsy 

Epilepsy is a group of neurological conditions that all involve seizures. They may be caused by brain lesions, tumors, or damage, or have no apparent cause (idiopathic epilepsy).

If your dog has a seizure, they need to see a vet to determine the cause and ensure there are no neurological defects. A vet will also be able to prescribe medication to help control symptoms and possibly even prevent seizures in the future. Surgery may be necessary if the vet believes brain tumors could be contributing to their symptoms.

Head trauma

Brain injuries can trigger ongoing seizures in otherwise healthy dogs ‚ÄĒ this may be due to falls, being struck in the head, or having a collision with a vehicle. Other symptoms of head injuries include disorientation, scrapes, lacerations, and dental damage. There may not be outward signs, and pet parents might not realize something is wrong until their dog starts convulsing.¬†¬†

Treatment for brain injuries will depend on the nature of the injury. Dogs with a lot of fluid on their brain may need surgery or medication to reduce fluid volume. If there is significant skull damage, surgery can also help repair the skull and remove bone fragments in the brain. Pain medicine and/or sedation is often necessary to keep the dog comfortable as they heal.

brown, blind dog standing outside in the grass

Sudden blindness

If you notice that your dog is stumbling, bumping into walls or furniture, or startles more easily, you may want to have their eyes checked. As dogs age, it's natural for their eyesight to decline gradually. However, blindness that comes on suddenly is not normal and could signal major health problems that can cause permanent sight loss and even death. 

Potential causes of sudden blindness in dogs

Closed-angle glaucoma 

Closed-angle glaucoma is an irreversible eye condition that can cause sudden blindness and a painful buildup of intraocular pressure. There are two types of closed-angle glaucoma: primary, which develops due to genetic factors, and secondary, which can come about due to damage to the eye or other conditions like tumors, inflammation, and lens luxation. 

Sadly, scientists have yet to find a cure for this disease, though some medications and procedures can slow vision loss. Vets often use medicated eye drops to help rid the eye of excess fluid and reduce intraocular pressure. Your vet may also administer eye injections or use cyclocryotherapy to eliminate fluid-producing structures within the eye. Glaucoma is a painful condition, so most dogs require meds to keep them comfortable during treatment.

Retinal detachment    

Retinal detachment occurs when the retina separates from the inner eye and is a common cause of sudden sight loss. Poisoning, retinal degeneration, trauma to the eye, circulation problems, infection, and genetics can all contribute to retinal detachment. 

Some breeds, like Shih Tzus, Collies, and Schnauzers, have a genetic predisposition to this condition. If you suspect your pet has a detached retina, you should seek treatment immediately since sight loss can be permanent if treatment is delayed.

The vet will run diagnostics to identify the root cause and begin aggressive treatment for the contributing illness. Dogs with infections may need broad-spectrum antibiotics, whereas dogs with clotting disorders may need intravenous vitamin K. Severe cases may require removal of the affected eye.

Meningitis      

Meningitis is a dangerous condition in which the outer lining of the nerve tissue becomes inflamed and is often accompanied by swelling of the brain and spinal cord. This inflammation can cause dogs to cry out in pain when touched and have stiffness that affects mobility. The dog may also behave differently, acting confused or even aggressive.

Without veterinary care, meningitis can lead to paralysis and death. Treatment for this condition includes corticosteroids and anticonvulsants to reduce inflammation and prevent seizures. A broad-spectrum antibiotic may also be necessary if the condition is bacterial. Dogs recovering from meningitis often need months or even years of therapy and continued care.

sick white dog lying under a brown blanket next to a stuffed animal

Acute pain and an inability to settle or sleep

Any time your pet is experiencing pain so severe that it affects their ability to get comfortable, you need to seek treatment. Acute pain and inability to settle could be as simple as a hurt paw or something as serious as bloat, but you shouldn't take any chances.

Possible causes of pain and restlessness in dogs

Joint pain 

Arthritis, cruciate ligament injuries, and hip, knee, or elbow dysplasia are some of the most common causes of joint pain in dogs. Any of these conditions can cause dogs to feel significant pain, which can interfere with their daily activities and even their ability to fall asleep.

Treatment for arthritis focuses on reducing pain and inflammation and preventing further breakdown of the joint. Treatment options include anti-inflammatory therapy, steroid shots, and glycosaminoglycans.

Some vets will perform visco-supplementation, where hyaluronic acid is injected into the synovial space to reduce joint pain. Cruciate ligament injuries almost always require surgery to correct, but sadly, cruciate ligament surgery does not always prevent arthritis from developing in the joint and it is not affordable for all owners.

Bloat 

Besides obvious abdominal swelling, as we mentioned above, the most common (and frightening) sign of bloat is pain that comes on suddenly and interferes with a dog's ability to rest.


Large amounts of blood in the stool or vomitus

Bloody stools and vomit are some of the most frightening symptoms for our pets, and you should never take these signs lightly. Let's take a look at why a dog may have these symptoms.

Possible causes of blood in the stool or vomit

Parvovirus

Parvo is a fear all puppy parents share. This nasty viral infection is extremely contagious and is often fatal without veterinary intervention. Besides bloody vomit and stools, parvo causes lethargy, abdominal swelling, dehydration, and shock.

Dogs with parvo may need antiemetic and antidiarrheal medication, IV fluids to replace lost fluids and electrolytes, and possibly antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infections. Dogs with severe cases may also require blood transfusions. 

Hemorrhagic gastroenteritis  

Hemorrhagic gastroenteritis is another concern vets have when a pet presents with bloody stools. Experts aren't exactly sure what causes this condition. However, we do know that it's most common in small dogs.

Hemorrhagic gastroenteritis can quickly turn fatal, as dogs lose blood, electrolytes, and fluids from bloody diarrhea. But with prompt treatment, dogs can recover. Dogs with this condition require IV fluids and sometimes even blood and plasma transfusions to get their electrolytes and blood counts back to healthy levels.

sick yellow dog with blue cast lying on a veterinary table during a health exam

Recent trauma

If you have reason to believe your dog has recently suffered trauma (such as being hit by a car), you need to get them to a vet pronto. Even if your dog seems to be acting normal, it doesn't hurt to take them in.

Possible causes of recent trauma in dogs

Vehicular trauma

1.2 million dogs die from being hit by cars each year in this country alone. Dogs can survive collisions with cars, but they will need immediate veterinary attention. Dogs may appear uninjured but be experiencing shock, have internal damage, or have broken bones.

Dogs with vehicular trauma need x-rays, imaging scans, and a thorough exam to determine the extent of their injuries. From there, the vet may need to do surgery to stop internal bleeding or repair broken bones. For bone breaks, the dog may require surgery or a cast or splint to help their bones mend correctly. Blood transfusions may be necessary for dogs that have lost a lot of blood from their injuries.  

Animal attacks 

Animal attacks can cause lacerations, broken bones, infections, and even spread infectious diseases like rabies, so it's crucial that you take your dog in if they get in a scuffle.

Treatment for animal attacks varies on a case-by-case basis. Some dogs may need stitches or surgery, whereas others might not require any treatment at all. The vet will likely want you to monitor your pet for signs of infection or contagious illnesses (especially rabies), which can be transmitted through animal bites.

white dog sitting next to a plate of foods that are toxic for dogs

Recent toxin ingestion

Toxin ingestion always warrants a vet trip, even if the dog only consumes a small amount. Even a few bites of unbaked bread dough, which may seem relatively harmless, can cause ethanol poisoning in small dogs and can even be fatal without prompt treatment. Below are some of the most common toxins dogs ingest.   

Possible causes of poisoning in dogs

Dr. Simon urges parents to remove any remaining toxins from their dog's vicinity before anything else. "This may mean locking away medicine, putting plants outside, or cleaning a spill. If there is a label or wrapper, take a photo of it to show your vet," she says.  

Treatment for poisoning depends on the type and amount of toxin the dog ingests and the time that has elapsed since the dog ate it. If the pet parent gets them to treatment early, the vet may be able to induce vomiting and administer activated charcoal to keep the stomach from absorbing the toxins. They may also want to perform gastric lavage to flush the stomach of its contents.

If the toxin is known to trigger seizures, the vet may give them anticonvulsants in their IV. Dogs with xylitol poisoning need constant monitoring to ensure their blood sugar doesn't drop to dangerous levels. Vets may also administer S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe) to prevent toxin formation damage and vitamin K to aid in blood clotting (especially in cases of poisoning caused by rat poison or blood thinner medication).


An allergic reaction that affects breathing

An allergic reaction is never something to brush off, especially if it's affecting your dog's breathing. If your dog is breathing unusually, has blue or purple gums, or is swelling of the face, mouth, or throat, you need to head to the emergency vet immediately.


"Anaphylactic shock occurs after exposure to antigens in animals sensitive to medications, certain foods (like nuts or shrimp in humans), or insect bites. Anaphylactic reactions may be delayed and may occur hours after exposure, but normally, reactions occur within a few minutes." ‚ÄĒ Dr. Callum Turner DVM


Possible causes of allergic reactions in dogs

Nearly anything can be an allergen and contribute to anaphylaxis, but here are some of the most common:

When a dog arrives at the vet showing signs of anaphylaxis, the first step will be to start an IV and monitor their airway and blood pressure. If the animal has serious trouble breathing, the vet may have to insert an endotracheal tube.

Depending on the severity of the reaction, the vet may administer epinephrine, bronchodilators, and steroids to keep the airways open and help prevent dangerous blood pressure drops. A vet may be able to manage less severe reactions with antihistamines (like Benadryl), steroids, and monitoring.


Be prepared for anything

If your dog is exhibiting any of these signs, visit your local emergency vet as soon as you can. Early detection and treatment are vital for many of the conditions outlined above, so acting fast is essential.

Accidents and illnesses crop up when you least expect them (and usually at the worst possible time). Take some financial strain off your future self by investing in pet insurance today. Wag!'s pet insurance comparison tool lets you compare plans from leading companies like PetPlan and Embrace. Find the right plan for your fur-baby and save more than $270 on pet insurance each year!


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