Animal Emergency!

Bleeding? Choking? Poisoning? Here's how to deal with your pet's health crisis.

Greg Hinks and Heather Sonvico work on an intravenous catheter for Kaya, a cat brought into the Newton Animal Hospital for emergency bladder stones treatment.
Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

Mom, there’s something horribly wrong with Puddle. His legs are bleeding, and he can’t seem to walk.”

When I got this call one Saturday evening last year from my daughter, Julia, who had just witnessed our 11-year-old cat drag himself into our yard and under a bush, perhaps to die, I was an hour away from home. I told her to lift him carefully and bring him in the house to rest until I got there, which she did.

On my way back to our home in Point Pleasant Beach, I stopped by our vet’s office, which was closed, but a notice in the window provided a number for an emergency veterinary hospital—Garden State Veterinary Specialists in Tinton Falls—open 24 hours a day. When I got home, what I saw was far worse than I had imagined—my usually lively orange cat lay on his side with his two back legs mangled to bloody pulps. We called the hospital and were told to come right in. With Puddle wrapped in towels, we drove 25 minutes to the pet ER.

There, the hospital’s triage system swept our cat in ahead of others in the waiting room due to the severity of his injuries. His legs were described by the highly skilled, if a little abrupt, doctors as being “degloved,” the cause of which was never determined. They thought one leg could be bandaged and saved, but the other needed to be amputated. I chose to have my own vet perform the amputation, both to save on the mounting emergency care costs and to have Puddle close to home for the weeks of follow-up care he’d need.

Our story was typical of panicked pet owners who find themselves in veterinary ERs after an otherwise healthy animal swallows something, gets hit by a car, stops breathing, gets into a fight, or loses consciousness. Animal-care providers say with advance planning and some basic knowledge, a pet emergency need not be a calamity.

Before a crisis arises, pet owners should know where the 24/7 veterinary emergency care facility is in their area—and how to get there. The phone number of the facility should be posted in the home, along with the national animal poison-control number.

“When something happens, an owner’s stress level is very high. And if you don’t have a plan, you might waste twenty minutes figuring out where to go, which can be critical,” says Dr. Don Costlow, owner of the Newton Veterinary Hospital.

Extreme precautions should be taken when dealing with an animal in distress. Even the most docile pet will bite when feeling threatened. Besides moving the pet to a safe place, owners should not do anything before calling a vet or emergency hospital, where technicians can assess the level of emergency and may be able to walk an owner through a simple first-aid response.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone say, ‘I just gave my cat medication. I wish I called you five minutes earlier,’” says Dr. Rosanna Scali of Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in Tinton Falls. “Now you’re dealing with an emergency.”

Most often, the pet needs to be seen. Ambulances do not respond to animal emergencies, so it’s up to you to transport the animal. Small animals can be wrapped in a towel and placed on a flat surface. A blanket can serve as a stretcher to lift larger animals into the car, where the area around the animal should be padded with pillows.

Once you have arrived at your vet or the emergency facility, your animal will be checked in by the triage staff, who will determine if your animal needs immediate attention. If it is your first time at the hospital, you will be asked many questions about your pet’s health history. Do not be put off by the businesslike attitude.
“Most people know their vets on a first-name basis. So now they’re in the ER, and these vets are not establishing a lifelong relationship. Their method is to get to the bottom of the problem and fix it,” says Dr. Anthony DeCarlo, CEO of Red Bank Veterinary Hospital.

Here are some of the crises that bring pets to the ER, and what owners can do:

Excessive bleeding: For external cuts, an owner can apply pressure or a tourniquet to the wound to stanch bleeding. If the bleeding is the result of a fight with another dog or cat, get the animal’s rabies-vaccine history from its owner. Puncture wounds to the abdomen or chest cavity will need to be X-rayed for possible internal injuries. Bleeding from the mouth or anus could be a sign of internal trauma and requires emergency care.

Poisoning: Call your vet and/or animal poison control (888-426-4435) and describe the toxin your pet ingested, which can range from too much holiday chocolate or turkey to rat poison. Do not induce vomiting without speaking to the vet first, since caustic materials can cause even more damage coming up. In the ER, animals will be given something to coat their GI tract before vomiting is induced. They may also be given activated charcoal to bind whatever remains in the system.

Broken limbs: Move the animal as little as possible and do not try to stabilize it yourself, as you may cause more damage and will likely get bitten. Lay a towel over the animal to keep it calm, and bring it in for X-rays and treatment. Do not administer any pain medication without first speaking with a vet.

Choking: If you can see the object in your dog’s throat, you can try sweeping it out with your fingers. If the object is lodged deeper down, you might try the Heimlich maneuver by pressing up at the base of the rib cage, though dogs’ diaphragms are shaped differently than humans. The best bet is to rush the animal to a care facility.

Allergic reactions: These can be treated by simply giving the pet a dose of regular Benadryl (only as directed by your vet). They can also be extreme, causing your animal to swell up or break out in hives, in which case a vet will likely administer an anti-inflammatory treatment, such as steroids.

Trouble breathing or loss of consciousness: Unless you are trained in animal emergency care, it is best not to try to administer CPR to your dog or cat. Instead, get your pet as quickly as possible to the nearest care facility.

The goal of most emergency facilities is to get your animal stable and well enough to go home or be transferred to your own vet for follow-up care. But if your pet needs continual observation or the services of specialists, you might be looking at several days in the ER, a prospect that can be quite daunting and quite costly.

Pet insurance, if you have it, can help, and most hospitals offer payment plans. Emergency staffers are careful to keep owners informed, providing a range of treatment options and the anticipated cost of each. Still, emergency providers recognize that dealing with a pet in crisis can be overwhelming.

“Owners are emotional,” says Dr. Dana Dietrich, a critical care resident at Garden State Veterinary Services. “They’ve just witnessed their animal being hit by a car or collapse, and it can be a lot to take in. We give them options and make recommendations, but the decision is up to the owners every step of the way.”

For most pet owners, the choice is to do everything possible to save an otherwise healthy animal. For me, watching Puddle run around on his three legs nearly as fast as his little tabby brother, I’ve never questioned the $2,800 decision to make this member of our family (almost) whole again.

Jill P. Capuzzo is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.

Click here to read the New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association’s list of emergency pet hospitals around the state.

Read more Animals, Jersey Living articles.

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