One Christmas Eve many years ago, I decided to kill some time before heading over to a family gathering by cutting the nails on all my dogs. (Yes, I know it's odd, but I'll say in my own defense that the presents were already wrapped and I had nothing else to do.)
Somehow I managed to cut so deeply into one nail that the blood just gushed. And of course, I hadn't checked to make sure I had styptic powder (or even cornstarch, a great backup) on hand before I started.
So instead of opening presents, I found myself opening my checkbook at the emergency clinic, along with a handful of other pet lovers with timing or luck just as bad as my own. Among them, I remember a puppy with parvo, an ancient cat with breathing problems and a dog with tapeworms.
The last was hardly an emergency, but the pet's owner didn't know that. She'd seen something come out of her dog that she was convinced was a part of his intestine. The veterinary technician was kind enough to set her straight without charge and with instructions to visit her regular veterinarian after the holidays.
While it might be tempting to snicker at a person who didn't recognize a tapeworm, she was truly doing her pet a service. She thought something was wrong and didn't wait to find out what it was. That's much better than those people who wait to get sick animals treated, even when their pets are clearly in pain.
But how do you know when a situation is critical enough to find a veterinarian immediately? Anything is worth at least a call if you're not sure what's wrong, but some things require urgent attention. The holidays are always hectic enough, which makes this a great time to remind people of what's an emergency:
Seizure, fainting or collapse.
Eye injury, no matter how mild.
Vomiting or diarrhea – anything more than two or three times within an hour or so.
Allergic reactions, such as swelling around the face, or hives, most easily seen on the belly.
Any suspected poisoning, including antifreeze, rodent or snail bait, and human medication. Cats are especially sensitive to insecticides (such as flea-control medication for dogs) or any petroleum-based product.
Snake or venomous spider bites.
Thermal stress – from being either too cold or too hot – even if the pet seems to have recovered. The internal story could be quite different.
Any wound or laceration that's open and bleeding, or any animal bite.
Trauma, such as being hit by a car, even if the pet seems fine. Again, the situation could be quite different on the inside.
Any respiratory problem: chronic coughing, trouble breathing or near-drowning.
Straining to urinate or defecate.
Although some other problems aren't life threatening, they may be causing your pet pain and should be taken care of without delay. Signs of pain include panting, labored breathing, increased body temperature, lethargy, restlessness, crying out, aggression and loss of appetite. Some pets seek company when suffering, while others will withdraw.
When in doubt, err on the side of caution. Better to be dead wrong about a minor medical problem than to have a pet that's dead because you guessed wrong about a major one. Call your veterinary clinic or hospital before you need help and ask what arrangements the staff suggests for emergency or after-hours care. If your veterinarian refers clients to an emergency clinic after regular business hours, be sure you know which clinic, what the phone number is and how to get there.
I got lucky that Christmas Eve with a fast and relatively inexpensive resolution to my pet's emergency, but I'm always aware that next time I might not be so fortunate. This is why I now know whom to call and where to go whenever I need help for my pets, why I keep first-aid supplies on hand – and why I have resolved never to clip nails on a holiday again.