Common Emergencies

Information about common emergencies and what to do

Abscesses, Bloat and Burns


These appear either as a soft swelling or already burst and producing a variety of creamy to blood-stained discharges, which matt and dry in the coat to produce a scab. These usually start as a puncture wound (especially from cat fights); from penetrating foreign bodies such as splinters or grass seeds; or on the face from tooth infections. Unless the animal is significantly distressed, these will usually not be true emergencies. If the abscess has burst, initial care should be simply bathing the affected area with cooled boiled water. Disinfectants may be irritating and should be avoided (especially in cats). Try to encourage any remaining contents to drain from the abscess. Be aware that the area may be sore and do not attempt to clean the wound if your animal is trying to bite or scratch you. Make an appointment with your clinic to get the wound assessed.


Known properly as GDV (Gastric Dilation/Volvulus). This is a true emergency which occurs infrequently, but more commonly in certain deep-chested breeds of dogs (German Shepherds, Setters, Great Danes and Dachshunds, amongst others). It classically occurs after dogs rapidly eat a carbohydrate-rich meal and is often associated with exercising soon after such a meal. The stomach becomes rapidly over-inflated with gas produced by fermentation within the stomach. Unfortunately there is not really much you can do at home with this one, except phone the vet and ask to be seen as soon as possible.

Burns and Scalds

Burns occur from direct contact with heat or due to electrical contact; scalds are from contact with hot liquids. The most important thing with all heat injuries is to safely remove the animal from the heat source and then cool the area as rapidly as possible. This is especially so with oil from chip pans and similar. Be aware of your own safety – the animal will be in pain, and also be aware of electrical hazards before throwing around large volumes of cold water. If the burn area is large; the animal is in significant pain; or the burn is close the the eyes, mouth, etc. then contact the duty vet and ask to be seen as soon as possible.

Coughs and Cuts

Coughs and inhaled foreign bodies

The most common cause of coughing in dogs is Kennel Cough. This is not limited to dogs who have been in kennels – it can be easily picked up from passing contact on the street, at dog shows, training classes, and so on. Kennel cough rarely causes acute life-threatening problems, but if you are concerned, please contact the duty vet. It is relatively uncommon for animals to inhale foreign bodies, but if they do, it generally causes a persistent cough and the animal is unlikely to want to eat or drink. If your dog is coughing non-stop and may have inhaled a foreign body (e.g. from running through long grass or crops), then please contact the duty vet as soon as possible.

Cuts and Grazes (including bleeding)

Not all cuts and grazes need attention. If the wound is small (less than 1 cm) and away from the eyes, mouth or other orifices, then they should be cleaned with cooled boiled water (or if that is unavailable, just clean water). Do not use disinfectants or any human disinfectant creams. The biggest issue with small injuries, especially in dogs, is the damage caused by the animal trying to keep the area clean. If the dog tries to lick at a wound, a light dressing may be applied, or use a muzzle or Buster collar to protect the area – we have these at all our clinics.

If there is bleeding, then firm pressure (ideally with a sterile or clean dressing) will stop most minor bleeds. Even if a larger artery is bleeding, then pressure should be applied, but be careful if you are concerned about a foreign body being left in (e.g. a piece of glass). If the wound is near the eyes; the wound won’t stop bleeding after a few minutes of firm pressure; or if the wound obviously requires stitching, then we would normally advise that the animal is seen promptly as they will heal better if stitched within a few hours of the injury occurring. Contact your nearest clinic or the duty vet.

Ears and Eyes

Ear Problems

Most ear infections are not true emergencies, but if the animal is distressed and you cannot stop them from scratching or shaking their ears, then they may cause significant further damage if the ear is left untreated. A Buster collar may help if you have one to hand that fits well. Ears bleed profusely when cut, and this may need prompt attention. Swelling of the ear flap may occur either from the damage caused by scratching and shaking, or from blunt trauma (typically dogs running into trees or door posts). The swelling is caused by blood leaking into the space between the skin and the cartilage of the ear flap. Unless the animal is significantly distressed, these are usually okay to leave until the clinics reopen for routine work.

Eye Problems

These are notoriously difficult to give firm advice about over the phone, or in general terms. Minor eye infections will wait until the clinic is open – these are usually characterised by a creamy discharge and the eye(s) being either partially shut, or covered partially by the third eyelid (a pale flap which arises from the nose side of the eye). More significant eye infections, where there is damage to the eye surface, or where there is suspicion of a foreign body (e.g. splinter or grass seed) will often require an emergency appointment. In case of doubt, please phone the duty vet to describe your pet’s symptoms.

Lameness and Road Accidents


Many minor injuries will wait for the next routine surgery, but if you feel your animal may have a serious injury such as a dislocated or fractured leg, then please phone the duty vet for further advice. Things to look for in the case of a fracture or dislocation include reduced range of movement of a joint, inappropriate rotation of a limb, or a grating sensation when the affected limb is gently manipulated.

Road Traffic Accidents

RTAs come in all shapes and sizes, and injuries range from minor bruising to major complications involving broken limbs, severe bruising, internal bleeding and blood loss. Please contact the duty vet to discuss whether your animal needs seen, as in some cases they may not need seen immediately, but others may need urgent care.


Suspected Poisoning

The two poisonings we see most often are rat poison and slug pellets, though we also see chocolate poisoning (especially over Christmas), and various incidents involving dogs eating prescription medicines. Where possible, please bring the container and as much paperwork as possible regarding the items you think your pet may have eaten. There may be a benefit in making the animal sick if the incident has occurred within the previous 2 hours (ideally within 30 minutes). We are able to get specialist advice about a wide range of possible poisons from the Veterinary Poisons Information Service. Please note that they are unable to deal directly with pet owners.

Rat and Mouse Poisons

Rat and mouse poisons are generally anti-coagulants – this means they slow down or stop the process of blood clotting. Symptoms vary, but can include obvious blood loss, bruising, blood in urine (sometimes brown rather than red), vomiting blood or a coffee-ground type material, and passing blood in stools, which can appear dark and tarry. Most rat poisons are slow-acting and require the ingestion of significant amounts of poison over an extended period, however, as symptoms can be difficult to control once they are advanced, we generally recommend inducing vomiting if an animal is thought to have eaten poison in the last few hours. A specific antidote is available for most rat poisons, but due to their slow action, prolonged treatment over several weeks may be required. Please contact the duty vet as soon as you are aware of the dog eating the poison. Please have the label to hand and/or bring the box with you as this aids our decision making in each case.

Slug Pellets

Slug pellets are generally palatable to dogs as they need to be attractive to slugs. These are often found around agricultural buildings in late summer as they are used by some vegetable farmers. The main symptom of poisoning is usually fitting, and as there is no specific antidote and symptoms may be difficult to control, then survival rates can be poor. Inducing vomiting of recently eaten poison is essential where possible. Please contact the duty vet as soon as you are aware of the possibility of your dog having eaten slug pellets.


Chocolate can be toxic to dogs and cats, and leads to fits and liver problems. However, this is not likely to happen with most milk chocolate bars, composite chocolate sweets such as Quality Street, and cakes containing chocolate, as the level of cocoa solids is very low. However, dark chocolate (ranging from the Bourneville-type through to high cocoa solids specialist chocolates) can be dangerous, even in fairly small quantities. Contact the duty vet to discuss whether your pet needs seen.

Other toxic incidents we regularly see involve pets eating prescription-only medicines (especially puppies). It is important to bring the packaging (if it survives) or other paperwork relevant to the medicine as well as an estimation of the amount likely to have been eaten, as we need this information to decide on the likelihood of there being a toxic problem and to plan the appropriate treatment.

Vomiting, Diarrhoea and Whelping

Vomiting and Diarrhoea

This is the most common set of symptoms we see during the course of our week. Many cases do not require any veterinary intervention at all, and will respond to basic management such as withholding food for up to 24 hours and then giving light food for a few days (e.g. chicken & rice). However, if your animal’s symptoms are severe, or not improving after 24 hours or more, then many cases do need treatment. Most urgently we need to see animals who are getting weak or dehydrated, or if profuse amounts of blood are being voided in either direction (small amounts of blood in vomit or diarrhoea are not necessarily worrying). We would also expect to promptly see very old or very young animals with vomiting or diarrhoea.

Where you feel your pet may have eaten a solid foreign body (and you’d be amazed by the range of items we have removed over the years!) please contact the duty vet to discuss whether we need to see the animal promptly or not. It is not always sensible to induce vomiting when they have eaten a rough or odd-shaped foreign body as it may cause more damage to the throat on the way back up.


Most cats, and many breeds of dog, will usually give birth with no intervention. Again, there are no hard and fast rules to govern when veterinary attention is required. It is certainly not uncommon for there to be an hour or more between the birth of individual puppies or kittens, but if the mother is becoming weak; if there is a period of intense straining without the production of a further puppy/kitten; or if you have any other concerns, then you should contact the duty vet.