Many pet owners have found themselves in difficult situations in which they know something is wrong with a pet, but the veterinary clinic is closed. How do you know when it’s a true emergency and how do you know when it can wait until the clinic opens the next day?

To answer this question, Dr. Christine Rutter, a clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, discusses some common situations that often cause pet owners concern.

If an animal is showing lameness, such as abnormal movements or the inability to use a limb, the severity will determine the degree of urgency. If lameness is severe, suddenly worse, associated with bleeding, or persists for more than 24 hours, it should be considered an emergency situation.

“Weight-bearing lameness, or limping, can typically be evaluated within one to two days by a primary care veterinarian, rather than on an emergency basis,” Rutter said.

Sources online may recommend giving non-steroidal, over-the-counter medications to pets for pain relief, but this can cause serious toxicity or drug interaction issues.

“If an owner feels that a pet needs pain medication, they should always contact their veterinarian prior to administering medications,” Rutter said. “I don’t recommend any over-the-counter human pain medications for use in animals. We have veterinary medications that are much safer, more effective, and interfere less with our ability to diagnose and treat more complicated causes of lameness.”

Bleeding cuts and injuries are also considered emergencies when severe, especially if accompanied by lethargy or weakness. In addition, pale pink or white mucous membranes, including the gums and tissues inside of eyelids, can indicate severe or rapid blood loss.

“Any bleeding that is excessive or doesn’t stop within 10 to 15 minutes should be evaluated by a veterinarian,” Rutter said. “Any wound that is ‘full-thickness,’ which means it goes all the way through the skin so that you can see underlying muscles and tissues, should be evaluated. This especially applies to bite wounds; all bite wounds are an emergency.”

Bite wounds not only cause physical damage, but can also lead to infection and spread diseases between animals, so they should be treated by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

If a dog or cat swallows a foreign object or plant, the best option is to immediately call the ASPCA poison control hotline (888-426-4435) to determine if the ingested substance is toxic.

“The ASPCA hotline does cost money, but it could either save you a trip to the ER if the intoxication isn’t serious, or it can provide your ER veterinarian with important initial and follow-up information through the case number you receive during the consultation,” Rutter said.

Another common cause of concern for pet owners is when a dog or cat becomes lethargic or refuses to eat or drink.

The urgency in this situation often depends on the pet’s normal behavior. For example, if a dog that normally eats all its food in a minute suddenly refuses to eat, it should probably be seen by a veterinarian sooner rather than later.

“In general, a dog or cat that doesn’t eat or is lethargic for more than 24 hours should be evaluated,” Rutter said. “Cats are especially sensitive to prolonged anorexia, and they can have secondary illness solely from not eating. Vomiting or diarrhea that does not resolve within 12 to 24 hours should also be evaluated.”

When it comes to seizures, the pet’s medical history will determine whether a trip to the emergency room is necessary.

“A single, short seizure that is ‘typical’ for a known epileptic pet is probably not an emergency,” Rutter said. “Seizures than last more than three to four minutes, violent seizures, new seizures, more than one seizure in 24 hours, or severe after-effects of a seizure are emergencies.”

Overall, if you think a situation may be an emergency, take the animal to a veterinarian as soon as possible. It is better to over-react and have to pay for an emergency room visit than to do nothing and lose a pet.

“I don’t recommend scouring the internet for information about how to treat your pet,” Rutter said. “Also, veterinarians and veterinary technicians cannot evaluate, diagnose, and treat patients over the phone—it’s illegal and can cost us our license.”

By knowing how to recognize a true emergency, pet owners can quickly make the best decisions for their animals and increase the likelihood of positive outcomes. Being prepared for emergencies can save money, time, and possibly even a pet’s life.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University.