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Question:
Recently my dog wasn’t eating as much as he usually does and he just seemed off. It was a weekend, so I didn’t want to make an emergency call unnecessarily. There were no other obvious symptoms, and he bounced back by Monday morning. This incident had me wondering, when should I call the vet and how can I determine if it’s really an emergency?

Answer:
Your dog is an important member of your family, but unlike human family members, a dog cannot complain if they are in pain or feeling under the weather. It’s hard to determine if a dog’s limp is an injury, or sudden loss of appetite is a symptom of a serious illness. How do you know when to reach out for medical help or seek emergency care?

As an experienced veterinarian, I ask my patients to notice key warning signs, but it’s important to have this conversation with your own veterinary practice as they know your pet’s particular needs.

Learn the warning signs that mean you should take your dog to the vet:

Change in Eating Habits

Skipping a meal is not unusual for a dog, especially on hot summer days or if he or she is in a new environment. However, any more than this could be a red flag that your dog is unwell. Two days without eating is a sign that you should contact your veterinarian.

If your dog is unusually hungry, begging for food excessively or attempting to eat everything he or she can get their paws on, this may mean a medical issue (though not necessarily an emergency), and you should schedule an appointment with your veterinarian.

However, each dog/patient must be evaluated in context, and things like the age, breed and medical history of a dog should always be considered. For example, a 2-year-old healthy Rhodesian Ridgeback missing a meal may be less concerning than a 10-year-old diabetic Maltese. Always call your vet if you’re unsure.

Excessive Thirst

When your dog drinks more water than usual it could be normal, depending on the weather and recent exercise or activity. Or, it could be a possible sign of kidney disease or diabetes if the excessive thirst and drinking seem to persist for longer than a day. Call your veterinarian promptly if you find yourself filling the water bowl more than usual, and it’s not due to warmer weather or a change in your dog’s urination frequency.

Eye Appearance

Red or cloudy eyes or unusual eye discharge could indicate an infection or injury. Also, if your dog is squinting or pawing at his eye(s), this can be cause for concern. These symptoms should not be ignored as diseases of the eyes can progress quickly. A basic rule to note is if one eye is affected, it may be an infection or injury. If both eyes are affected, consider a systemic issue such as allergies or other health issues

Vomiting

Most dogs experience vomiting on occasion. Like humans, our dogs vomit to rid themselves of something that doesn’t agree with their system. You should call the vet immediately if your dog is frequently vomiting or vomits blood.

Typically, it is less concerning for a dog to vomit two or three times in ten minutes and then be fine, rather than a dog that vomits three times over eight hours. Severe or prolonged vomiting could also cause dehydration, and you should seek treatment early.

If vomiting is combined with lethargy, poor appetite, and diarrhea, it may be an emergency and requires contacting your veterinarian right away.

Change in Stool

Healthy dog stool is firm and moist. If your dog has dry, hard stools or difficulty defecating it may be a sign of dietary problems, dehydration or other illness. Other changes to notice include worms, blood, or mucus present in the stool, diarrhea for more than 24 hours or straining during a bowel movement. Also, dark tarry stools may indicate blood in the stool, and your veterinarian should be notified right away. Changes in your dog’s stool should always be discussed with your veterinarian.

Lethargy

If your dog is more tired and sluggish than usual, it could be a sign that something is not right. Perhaps your dog is disinterested in playing or going for a walk and less responsive to commands. While it may simply be sore muscles or fatigue due to warm temperatures, you should call your veterinarian if it persists beyond two days.

Sudden Weight Loss

Sudden weight loss in any size dog is cause for concern and a reason to take him/her to the veterinarian. Even in overweight dogs, quick and unexpected weight loss could be an indication of a serious health condition. While it may be hard to gauge, you should alert your vet if you notice a ten percent weight loss.

Scooting

While rear-end scooting on the floor may resemble a silly dog trick, it could be a symptom of worms, an anal gland problem, bowel movement issues or even a urinary tract infection. If your dog suddenly starts scooting or increases this behavior, you should contact your veterinarian.

Emergency Symptoms

Seek immediate medical attention from your veterinarian or an emergency vet clinic if your dog shows any of the following symptoms:

  • Open wounds, possible broken bones or injury due to trauma or incident such as a fall or being hit by a vehicle, even if he appears to be acting OK
  • Stopped breathing or unconsciousness
  • Seizure
  • Sudden collapse or difficulty breathing
  • Bleeding from mouth, nose, or eyes
  • Possible poisoning from consuming something toxic
  • Repeated vomiting over 1 hour or vomiting blood
  • Retching and trying to vomit with no food coming up (a symptom of bloat)
  • Extreme pain, displayed by whining or shaking
  • Hard and swollen abdomen
  • Inability to pass urine
  • Labored breathing
  • Inability to deliver puppies (over two hours between puppies)
  • Ingestion of toxins such as chocolate, poisonous plants, sugar-free products with xylitol, grapes or raisins, rat poison
  • Unable to stand, wobbliness or dragging of limbs
  • Sudden disorientation
  • Pale color to gums (very important for owners to check gums regularly for abnormalities)

Discuss this list with your veterinarian as there may be further additions or clarification that is particular to your dog and breed. Remember, you best know your dog’s habits, behaviors, and routine. Trust your instincts and call your veterinarian if you have concerns.

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