Dog Symptoms: When Is It an Emergency?

Guest article by Jennifer Coates, DVM

Dogs seem to get sick or injured at the worst possible times.  Of course this is not their fault, but nonetheless it does often put owners in the position of having to decide whether an after-hours visit to the veterinarian is truly necessary.

Dog Symptoms: When Is It an Emergency?

This is not simply a matter of convenience.  Seeing a veterinarian on an emergency basis is not ideal.  Costs are generally higher and you will probably be dealing with a veterinarian who does not know you, your pet, or have access to his medical records.  These concerns should never stop you from seeking veterinary attention when it is truly necessary, but under the right circumstances, waiting until you can see your regular veterinarian is better for everyone.

If your dog is victim of any of the conditions listed below, take him to the veterinarian immediately.  

Even if your dog looks to be in relatively good shape, all of these conditions are potentially life-threatening and his condition could rapidly worsen.  Call the veterinary clinic to let them know you are on your way and to get advice about any first aid that you could provide.

Top 10 Emergency Conditions
  1. Any type of serious trauma (e.g., hit by a car, a fall from a moving vehicle, car accidents, gunshots or deep puncture wounds)
  2. Electrocution
  3. Difficulty giving birth
  4. Animal bites, including snake strikes by an unknown species
  5. Burns (chemical or thermal)
  6. Near drowning
  7. Smoke or carbon monoxide inhalation
  8. Obviously broken bones
  9. Exposure to extremely cold or hot temperatures
  10. Ingestion of a possible poison (including human and pet medications)
Confusion often arises, however, when an owner observes their dog’s symptoms but is unsure of the underlying cause.  

The following clinical signs warrant an immediate call to a veterinarian no matter the time of day or night.

Top 10 Symptoms of an Emergency

  1. Difficulty breathing
  2. Severe pain in any part of the body
  3. Profuse vomiting, particularly associated with an inability to keep down water, blood in the vomit, depression or pain
  4. Repeated unsuccessful attempts at vomiting, especially if associated with an enlarged abdomen
  5. Seizures
  6. A severely depressed attitude or unresponsiveness
  7. Extreme weakness or wobbliness
  8. Large amounts of blood in the stool
  9. Collapse
  10. Bleeding that drips or pools (a “smear” here and there is probably not an emergency)
If you are unsure of your pet’s condition, it is always safer to make a phone call than to “wait and see.”  Talking to a veterinarian about your dog’s symptoms will certainly help you determine whether or not you need to bring him in immediately or if he can wait until your regular clinic is open for business.


Jennifer Coates, DVM graduated with honors from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in 1999.  In the years since, she has practiced veterinary medicine in Virginia, Wyoming, and Colorado.  She is the author of several books about veterinary medicine and animal care, including the Dictionary of Veterinary Terms: Vet-speak Deciphered for the Non-veterinarian. Jennifer also writes short stories that focus on the strength and importance of the human-animal bond and freelance articles relating to a variety of animal care and veterinary topics.  Dr. Coates lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with her husband, daughter, and pets.

Do you know what your dog is telling you about their health?

Do You Know What Your Dog Is Telling You About Their Health?

Learn how to detect and interpret the signs of a potential problem.

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog

An award-winning guide to better understanding what your dog is telling you about their health, Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, is available in paperback and Kindle. Each chapter includes notes on when it is an emergency.


  1. Wow, thank you for this very informative post. I want to bookmark this so that if I ever worry whether or not to take my dog to the vet I have a guide I can look at. As a mother I tend to blow things out of proportion and I don't want to take him to an emergency vet if it isn't an emergency.

  2. Hello.. i have a question before i go n panic mode.. My dog recently (today) started having a smell like something is rotten.. She was licking my door way wood trim & i was thinking something under the house died.. But then i smelled her cause she had that smell on her breath.. But im smelling it down by her tail Does anyone know what causes this?? Any help appreciated.. ty

    1. Hi Darla, I think I already responded to your question on the other post. If the whole body smells, you might be looking at infection of sorts or a systemic problem. Please see a vet for a thorough exam, blood work and urinalysis.


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