Medical emergencies occur suddenly and without warning. It is important for all pet owners to have a basic understanding of common veterinary medical emergencies and basic first aid for their pet.   Some emergencies are obvious. A dog runs across the road and is hit by a car. Others may be just as serious – but not as obvious. A German shepherd appears restless after a large meal and tries to vomit. Unknown to the owner, this is the beginning of Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus (GDV), one of the most serious medical emergencies in large breeds.

While no one can be prepared for all emergencies, there are some simple guidelines and clinical signs that all pet owners can follow and look for to help their pet loved ones. Who knows, it just may save your pet’s life.

Are there any common emergencies that I should be prepared to handle?

Listed below is a list of common emergency situations with a brief description of their clinical signs. This list is not intended to be comprehensive but should serve as a general guide. In any medical emergency or illness, be sure and contact your veterinarian as soon as possible for more specific recommendations and assistance


This is a severe allergic reaction or acute hypersensitivity reaction and is often recognized by sudden collapse and severe breathing difficulties. The first clinical signs are often swelling around the face or muzzle, the appearance of wheals or hives on the skin, vomiting or diarrhoea, and restlessness. There are many causes for anaphylaxis that vary from insect stings, contact allergies to injection reactions. You should seek veterinary care immediately if you think your pet may be experiencing anaphylaxis.

Bites and fight wounds

These are particularly serious if: There is a large volume of blood loss or the bleeding is persistent and direct pressure fails to stop the bleeding:

1. Wounds involve the head, especially the eyes, ears, nose or throat 

2. Injuries have  penetrated internal organs or the abdomen, stomach or groin.


When is bleeding a medical emergency?  When is it severe or life-threatening? Blood pumping out or dripping so fast that it is making a pool on the floor or blood soaking through a normal bandage within a very few minutes is cause for alarm. Ears, feet, torn nails, the tongue and the nose can bleed severely and need veterinary attention to stop the loss of blood as quickly as possible.

Burns and scalds

Unless you witness these injuries, they are not frequently apparent until later when scabs or loss of hair or skin are noted. This is because the initial burns are usually masked by the dog’s fur. If you see your pet burned or scalded, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Persistent vomiting or diarrhea

Repeated or continuous vomiting or diarrhea, with or without blood, could be a sign of poisoning, obstruction or acute gastrointestinal infection. Dehydration is a major concern, especially in small dogs. Contact your veterinarian as soon as possible and before administering human medications or forcing it to drink or eat. You may inadvertently give something that worsens your pet’s condition

Convulsions or seizures

A convulsion or seizure is a series of violent, uncontrolled spasms. Seizures lasting for more than five minutes or accompanied by defecation or urination are considered serious and medical attention should be sought immediately.


Eclampsia is also known as hypocalcemia, milk fever, or puerperal tetany. It is a condition that not only affects nursing mothers but may also occur during the later stages of pregnancy. Signs are vague and include restlessness,panting, increased salivation and stiffness when moving. This can rapidly progress to muscle twitching and spasms, pyrexia (high fever) and sudden death.

Hemorrhagic gastroenteritis

This condition is characterized by severe bloody diarrhoea and vomiting. There are many causes of haemorrhagic enteritis ranging from a change in diet to stress to intestinal obstruction. Contact your veterinarian if you observe blood in the stool, if the vomiting or diarrhoea persists beyond six to twelve hours or if your pet becomes less responsive or weak.

Heart failure

Also called “heart attack”, cardiac failure, and cardiac insufficiency. How do you recognize if your pet is experiencing heart failure?
As dogs age, they may suffer from a condition called congestive heart failure (CHF) which may affect either the left, the right or both sides of the heart. The condition is often undiagnosed until coughing or sudden collapse occurs. Signs of heart failure include coughing (especially at night), difficulty breathing, bluish discoloration of the tongue (and other mucous membranes), decreased stamina and exercise intolerance.

A“heart attack” – or when the dog collapses – is often preceded by exercise or excitement. The inefficient heart is unable to pump blood fast enough and there is a severe lack of oxygen to the muscles and brain, which results in sudden collapse. If you observe any of these signs, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Heat stroke

This can happen at any time in warm, humid weather. It is frequently the result of leaving dogs in cars in hot weather with too little ventilation. The signs are excessive panting, lethargy and distress. Unconsciousness and death can quickly follow.


When do injuries become an medical emergency?  This will be determined by the type and extent of wounds and may be difficult to tell without medical tests. Any penetrating wound to the chest or abdomen and virtually any injury involving the eye should be regarded as a medical emergency. Injuries to the head or those causing difficulty breathing should also be treated as immediate emergencies.


Poisoning of any sort is an emergency. If you see your dog ingest a suspicious substance, call your veterinarian. Most poisonings or contact with toxic materials occurs without your knowledge. Clinical signs are variable and include excessive salivation, vomiting, diarrhoea, collapse, skin damage due to caustic substances, etc. Seek veterinary care as soon as possible to help reduce the absorption of toxins.

Unconsciousness or collapse

This may occur with or without seizure activity. It often occurs without warning, such as in the case of sudden heart failure or following a blow to the head. Collapse should always be treated as a medical emergency.

This client information sheet is based on material written by Ernest Ward, DVM. © Copyright 2005 Lifelearn Inc. Used with permission under license. August 23, 2013

Snake Bite

Symptoms of snake bite vary widely, and the degree of vet emergency can depend on the dose of venom the snake injected, the time since the animal was bitten and the type of snake. 

Symptoms include:  
Sudden collapse and then apparent recovery
Dilated or uneven pupil size  
Wobbly legs which may progress to paralysis  
Reluctance to move, loss of appetite  
Dark red or brown coloured urine 

If you suspect your animal has been bitten, bring it to our 24 hour vet clinic as soon as possible. The sooner the animal is seen at a Melbourne animal hospital, the better its chances of surviving


A wide range of illnesses can cause vomiting and diarrhoea. Although treatment is not usually needed at a Melbourne animal hospital, pets can sometimes become seriously ill and even die. In considering whether to visit an emergency vet, Melbourne pet owners should consider if their cat or dog: 

  • Is less than 6 months of age or older than 10 years 
  • Has blood in their vomit or diarrhoea  
  • Has another medical condition  
  • Is on any medication  
  • May have eaten a foreign object  
  • Has been vomiting for longer than 24 hours or has had diarrhoea for longer than two days 
  • Seems unwell: lethargic, reluctant to play or go out, not interested in food 
  • Is trying to vomit but unable to bring anything up 

Bloat (GDV, Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus)

Bloat is a true vet emergency situation requiring immediate attention by an emergency vet. Melbourne pets most at risk are large, deep-chested dog breeds. The stomach and then abdomen will appear swollen. 

Other symptoms may include:  

  • Attempting to vomit or retch  
  • Salivating  
  • Appearing unsettle

If left untreated your dog can collapse and die, so it is critical that you rush your dog to the animal emergency centre immediately.


Symptoms of a generalised seizure are:

  • Paddling or thrashing legs  
  • Violent tremors  
  • Salivation  
  • Mouth champing  
  • Urination and defecation 
    Disorientation post seizure

Seizures are not necessarily dangerous to the animal. If your dog or cat has more than three seizures in a 24-hour period, if they do not return to completely normal behaviour within 15 minutes of a seizure or if the seizure lasts for longer than 5 minutes, it will need to be seen at our 24 hour vet clinic immediately.

If your pet has a seizure, move it to a safe area where it cannot hurt itself. Do not place your hands near its mouth – a dog cannot swallow its own tongue, but it may accidentally bite you