How to determine when your dog or cat needs to see a vet right away, and when it’s okay to “wait and see”.

Your dog has a sudden case of diarrhea. Is it okay to let it run its course? Or perhaps your cat got a nasty scratch from another kitty. Should you take care of it at home, or have the vet look at it? It’s not always easy to determine whether or not a problem with your animal is an emergency that needs prompt veterinary attention. This article will detail when your dog or cat should be seen as soon as possible, and when it may be safe to simply watch him at home.

Is it an emergency?

Any emergency should be treated as soon as possible — but how do you know when a problem actually is an emergency? Here are eight conditions or signs I often consider emergencies, and that should be seen quickly by a vet.


Any injury in which a dog or cat is bleeding or unable to use a limb likely needs to be seen as soon as possible by a veterinarian. If your dog or cat is limping, but not in pain and able to bear some weight on the limb, you can likely wait to see the vet the following day.

If the animal is unable to use one or more limbs or drags his limbs, he should receive veterinary attention immediately. Many animals that drag their legs, especially the rear legs, have an acute ruptured disk that likely requires prompt surgery. The longer such an animal waits to be seen, the less likely full function will be restored to his nervous system post-operatively.

Dogs and cats that swallow foreign objects should be seen as quickly as possible. Not all objects require immediate removal; the veterinarian can assess the proper treatment following examination and radiography or ultrasonography.

GI symptoms

Vomiting, diarrhea, and lack of appetite are extremely common in dogs and cats. Many problems can cause these vague clinical signs, including various GI diseases, diabetes, kidney and liver failure, thyroid or adrenal disease, and cancer.

For a dog or cat that is otherwise acting totally normally, one minor bout of vomiting or one loose stool is likely no reason to panic. However, animals that have more than one episode of vomiting or diarrhea, or are “acting sick”, should be seen as soon as possible for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Urinary signs

Urinary issues of concern include those where blood is seen in the urine, the animal strains to urinate, or is unable to produce a normal urine stream.

Most cases of bloody urine are not life-threatening but should be seen as soon as possible to prevent blockage. If the animal is otherwise urinating normally, you can likely wait to see your vet at the first opportunity. These cases are usually caused by inflammation or infection. In some cases, tumors cause the bleeding and will need to be addressed.

Cats, particularly males, that experience urinary blockage/obstruction are often misdiagnosed by owners as having constipation. Constipation is rare in dogs and cats, whereas urinary blockage is much more common. Any animal that you deem to be “constipated” should be seen immediately. Urinary blockage is a life-threatening condition that must be treated as an emergency. These cases are expensive to treat, so the earlier the animal gets to the vet, the better for his health and your wallet.

Eye problems

I consider all eye issues emergencies when clients first call the office. In reality, many are not serious once I see the dog or cat, but there is no way to know this without an exam. Eye issues that concern me enough to recommend an immediate visit include:

  • Excessive blinking
  • Inability to fully open eyelids
  • Red eye/s (this means inflammation of the sclera, the white part of the eyes)
  • Cloudy eye/s (this means the clear part of the eye, the cornea, is edematous or swollen with water)
  • Constricted pupils (usually a sign of uveitis, inflammation of the inner part of the eye)
  • Dilated pupils (usually a sign of increased eye pressure, glaucoma)
  • Painful eyes
  • Eye discharge, especially if it resembles pus (usually a sign of infection, especially associated with dry eye or a corneal abrasion or puncture)

A full exam, including staining of the eye and measuring tear production, is needed to determine the significance of any eye disorders.

Heart and breathing issues

Any time a dog or cat has trouble breathing, is breathing heavily, or is using his abdominal muscles to help him breathe, it’s an emergency. These animals need to be seen immediately and handled carefully, as sudden death could occur.

Lumps and bumps

Typically, lumps and bumps are not emergencies and can wait until the next day after you noticed them. However, they should all be examined, usually aspirated or removed, and biopsied to rule out cancer. Tumors that cause pain, or are open and bleeding, should prompt a visit to the vet immediately.

Please note that all lumps and bumps should be checked by your veterinarian. I have recently removed several small, seemingly innocuous lesions that appeared to be “no big deal” but were in fact cancerous tumors (mast cell tumors and melanomas). Fortunately, their families and I were aggressive with diagnosis, which proved lifesaving!


For most dogs and cats, itchy ears or skin are not an emergency and a visit to the vet can wait until the next open appointment. But for those who are severely itchy or uncomfortable, or are scratching or biting so badly that a hot spot is forming, an emergency visit is important.

These animals need immediate relief from their itching to prevent serious self-destruction of their skin or ears. Please note that these dogs and cats typically require sedation for a proper examination and initial treatment and that potent medications such as corticosteroids and analgesics to relieve pain and itching as quickly as possible are likely needed. Additional natural therapies can be prescribed to help with ongoing or longer-term issues such as allergic dermatitis.

Weight loss or gain

Weight loss or gain can happen over several days to months. Rapid weight loss especially should be seen promptly since it can signal serious and potentially fatal diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, kidney failure, or thyroid disease.

So when is it okay to wait?

In general, dogs and cats that are not in severe pain or discomfort don’t need immediate emergency treatment. One episode of vomiting or diarrhea, or one instance of a small amount of blood in the urine, does not indicate an emergency. Using homeopathic remedies such as Arnica or Hypericum can ease the animal through the initial mild episode while you watch for any further signs that would warrant veterinary care. Dogs and cats that exhibit minimal clinical signs and that otherwise seem “normal” can be observed for 12 to 24 hours. Clinical signs that persist beyond this time should be brought to the vet’s attention.

The bottom line is, any time your dog or cat is uncomfortable, or you are concerned, he should be seen immediately. If you are unsure, a quick call to your vet’s office or an emergency veterinary hospital can help you decide. It’s always best to err on the side of caution!