Is it an Emergency?

That is a great question. Knowing whether your pet is experiencing a medical emergency is not always obvious. Dogs and cats are sometimes very adept at concealing serious underlying diseases. Learning to recognize the signs of a pet emergency and responding quickly can save your pet’s life or significantly shorten its stay in the hospital. 

If you are unsure if your pet needs emergency care, don’t hesitate to call your veterinarian or local veterinary emergency hospital (see sidebar). As calmly as possible, explain your dog’s symptoms and you will be advised on the best course of action.


Common Emergency Symptoms

Vomiting and diarrhea
Vomiting and diarrhea are symptoms of many medical conditions. Common causes include gastroenteritis (non-specific inflammation of the stomach or intestines), foreign body ingestion (with or without intestinal obstruction), poisoning, viral infection, and kidney or liver disease. Such symptoms often resolve in less than a day. If they persist or are severe, or if your dog is lethargic or behaving strangely, an emergency vet visit is recommended. 

If there is any doubt, err on the side of caution. We would rather see a healthy, well-hydrated pet that needs minimal or no treatment than one who is severely dehydrated and requires prolonged hospitalization.

Loss of appetite or decreased water consumption:

If your pet has been unwilling to eat or drink for longer than 24 hours, call or visit your veterinarian or emergency clinic. This could be a sign of potentially dangerous illness or injury.

Distended abdomen
Gastric dilation and volvulus (aka: GDV or bloat) is a serious emergency that results from a twisting of the stomach and subsequent distension of the organ with gas. It is a very painful condition that requires immediate medical attention, stabilization, and surgery. Any delay in treatment is life-threatening. 

Signs of bloat generally present very rapidly. Affected dogs are in pain and their abdomens appear distended. Dogs with GDV often attempt to throw up and may vomit thick viscous foam. They may become restless and/or be unwilling to lie down. 

Deep-chested dog breeds such as Great Danes, Standard Poodles, and German Shepherd Dogs are predisposed to developing GDV. 

Respiratory distress
Respiratory distress is always a medical emergency. Signs include labored breathing, gasping, breathing that is louder than normal, and wheezing. Pets with respiratory distress are usually somewhat lethargic due to oxygen deprivation and frequently lose their appetites. 

Respiratory problems could be the result of diseases such as asthma, pneumonia, cancer, heart failure, trauma, or others. No matter the cause, an emergency visit is in order. 

There are a multitude of potential toxins to which dogs can be exposed. Common animal toxins and their possible effects include:

  • Toxin Effect
    • Rat bait
  • Blood clotting disorder
    • Slug bait
  • Seizures and muscle tremors
    • Chocolate
    • Raisins and grapes
  • Kidney failure
    • Anti-freeze
    • Easter lilies
    • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Liver Failure
    • Aspirin or other NSAIDS


GI ulceration and/or Kidney Failure

If you suspect a poisoning or overdose of prescribed medicine, call your local veterinary hospital (see sidebar) or The ASPCA Poison Control Center, which operates 24 hours a day, including all major holidays. Your call will be answered by a veterinarian with board certification in toxicology who can give you instructions for immediate care. These vets have easy access to information about the clinical signs and treatment for poisonings with chemical toxins, plants, and illicit drugs, as well as overdoses or accidental administration of veterinary or human medications. 

The ASPCA Poison Control Center number is 888-426-4435. There is a $55 fee per call. You will be provided with a case number that your veterinarian can reference in consultation with Poison Control veterinarians in order to formulate a specific treatment plan.


Traumatic Emergencies

Examples of trauma include being hit by a car, falling from a building, or a fight with or attack from another (especially larger or wild) animal. Clinical signs vary based on the nature of the trauma, but could include dirt, plant material, or grease in hair coat, road abrasions, lacerations, bruises, frayed nails, respiratory distress, bleeding, or varying degrees of shock. 

Any form of trauma is considered a medical emergency. 


Other Emergencies

There are many other situations that should be evaluated on an emergent basis. If your pet is experiencing any of the following problems, a visit or call to your local emergency veterinary hospital is recommended. 

  1. Inability or straining to urinate (especially in males)
  2. Limb fractures
  3. Acute onset of eye problems, including pain, severe discharge, or trauma
  4. Seizure activity or an acute loss of balance
  5. A loss of or change in consciousness
  6. Allergic reactions, including hives, severe itching, and vomiting
  7. Severe lethargy
  8. Unwillingness or inability to walk 
  9. Acute bleeding 

Of course, just like their human counterparts, seriously ill or injured veterinary patients need appropriate and timely medical treatment. In many cases, waiting for the morning to see your regular veterinarian may not in be in your pet’s best interest.  



Clip this list of veterinary clinics that offer round-the-clock emergency services and post it in a prominent place in your home. Immediate access to this information could help save your dog’s life.



All Animals Emergency
1333 9th Ave., San Francisco
(415) 566-0531 

Pets Unlimited
2343 Fillmore St., San Francisco 
(415) 563-6700; 

San Francisco Veterinary Specialists 
600 Alabama St., San Francisco 
(415) 401-9200;



Bay Area Veterinary Specialists
14790 Washington Ave., San Leandro
(510) 483-7387 

Berkeley Dog & Cat Hospital
2126 Haste St., Berkeley 
(510) 848-5041

Bishop Ranch Veterinary Center
2000 Bishop Dr., San Ramon 
(925) 866-8387

Contra Costa Veterinary Emergency Clinic  
1410 Monument Blvd., Concord
(925) 798-2900

North Peninsula Veterinary Emergency Clinic, Inc. 
227 N Amphlett Blvd., San Mateo
 (650) 348-2575 

Ohlone Veterinary Emergency Clinic Inc. 
1618 Washington Blvd., Fremont
(510) 657-6620

Pet Emergency & Specialty Center of Marin 
901 E. Francisco Blvd., San Rafael 
(415) 456-7372

Pet Emergency Treatment Service
1048 University Ave., Berkeley 
(510) 548-6684

South Peninsula Veterinary Emergency Clinic 
3045 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto
(650) 494-1461

7660 Amador Valley Blvd., Dublin
(925) 556-1234



ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center 
(888) 426-4435; open 24/7 
Consultation fee: $55

Animal Poison Hotline
(888) 232-8870; open 24/7 
Consultation fee: $35 



Dr. Rob West has practiced emergency veterinary medicine in San Francisco since 2001 and has been on staff at San Francisco Veterinary Specialists (SFVS) since 2004. SFVS provides emergency services 24/7 at 600 Alabama Street (at 18th Street) in the Potrero Hill district of San Francisco. For more information, visit or call 415-401-9200. 

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