Our four-legged and feathered companions fill our lives with cozy cuddles, pretty songs, and unconditional love. They also can scare us with sudden illness or unexpected injury, so planning for the unexpected is equally as important as regular preventive care to ensure a long and healthy life. Animals, especially exotic species, are skilled at hiding illness or disease, which can make knowing when your pet needs immediate veterinary care a challenge. Whether your canine companion has an injured leg, or your frisky ferret is not themselves, knowing the clinical signs that constitute an emergency will ensure you can respond quickly and increase the chance of a positive outcome.

Generally, a pet who is not eating, drinking, or able to eliminate should be examined as soon as possible by your veterinarian. Additionally, you should seek immediate veterinary care after any trauma, especially since pets may not initially show clinical signs associated with internal bleeding. Keep important contact numbers, including our office number, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, the Pet Poison 24/7 Helpline, and the closest after-hours animal emergency clinic, in an easily accessible location. Your Kennedy Heights Animal and Bird Hospital team has compiled a list of some common signs, categorized by species, that your pet needs emergency care.  

Clinical signs of dog and cat emergencies

You know your pet better than anyone, but it’s not always obvious when they need immediate veterinary care. Curious felines and mischievous wet noses can get into trouble at any time. Signs that your dog or cat needs emergency care include:

  • Limping, or the inability to walk or stand on all four legs
  • Any active bleeding that doesn’t stop after five minutes
  • Bleeding from the mouth, nose, ears, rectum, or in the urine
  • Exposed tissue, bones, or muscles
  • Yelping, meowing, or barking when touched or moved
  • Puncture wounds from another animal
  • Vomiting and or diarrhea for more than 12 to 24 hours
  • Vomiting or diarrhea that contains blood 
  • Bloated or painful abdomen
  • Choking, gagging, or retching 
  • A seizure that lasts longer than five minutes, or multiple seizures in a 24-hour period
  • Facial swelling or hives
  • Difficulty breathing, or blue-tinged tongue or gums
  • Swollen or bulging eye

Clinical signs of emergencies in birds

Birds are skilled at hiding illness signs and often when you do notice, they have been sick for some time. Avoid giving any over-the-counter medications in their water, as they could make your bird more sick. If your bird is too weak to perch, stays at the bottom of their cage, or appears fluffed up or ruffled, they need immediate veterinary care. Other signs that your bird needs emergency care include:

  • Pronounced keel bone
  • Bleeding or traumatic injury
  • Refusal to eat or drink
  • Discharge from the eye, nose, mouth, or ears
  • Squinting or closing eyes for extended periods
  • Labored breathing or tail bobbing
  • Sudden change in stool color, consistency, or smell 
  • Straining to defecate or lay an egg

Clinical signs of emergencies in reptiles

Reptiles are also adept at appearing healthy when they are sick. If your pet iguana or snake is cold to the touch, try warming their enclosure with a heat lamp, space heater, or heating pad set on low. Set a thermometer nearby so you can monitor their temperature, and seek veterinary care as soon as possible if they remain cold. Also seek emergency care if your reptile:

  • Is not eating
  • Has exposed or prolapsed tissue
  • Is weak, paralyzed, or unable to move

Clinical signs of emergencies in rodents, rabbits, and guinea pigs

Anorexia (i.e., not eating for more than 24 hours) is one of the most common emergencies for rodents, rabbits, and guinea pigs. The condition is more critical if they also are unable to defecate. Gastrointestinal (GI) stasis is another serious condition in these pets that may require hospitalization or surgery. Sick guinea pigs especially tend to decline quickly, and rarely recover without veterinary care. Other clinical signs that indicate emergency care is necessary include:

  • Head tilt
  • Depression, weakness, or lethargy
  • Pain when handled
  • Rolling or flipping
  • Difficulty breathing

Clinical signs of emergencies in ferrets

Your ferret who has occasional soft or loose stools generally does not need emergency veterinary care, but if they have been vomiting or had diarrhea for 24 hours, they will need immediate care. Ferrets with GI problems can quickly become dehydrated and weak, and will need supportive care. Other common clinical signs that indicate an emergency include:

  • Pawing at the mouth because of nausea from low blood sugar 
  • Straining to eliminate, or frequent trips to the litter box 
  • Depression or lethargy
  • Lack of appetite
  • Tense or painful abdomen
  • Seizures
  • Limping or difficulty coordinating the back legs

Our Kennedy Heights Animal and Bird Hospital team understands that it’s scary when your beloved companion becomes ill or gets into unexpected trouble. Never hesitate to call or text our office if you suspect your pet is having an emergency and needs immediate care.