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Common Pet Emergencies: Important things you should know

By Localiiz Branded | 1 March 2023

Header image courtesy of Tai Wai Small Animal and Exotic Hospital

Pet emergencies that require immediate veterinary care can happen at any time of the day or night, so it is vital for a pet owner to be able to recognise these situations quickly. If your pet is showing any of the symptoms below, make sure to contact your primary care veterinarian or the nearest emergency veterinary clinic for advice as soon as possible.

Photo: Tai Wai Small Animal and Exotic Hospital

Choking, breathing very fast, or having difficulty breathing

According to Tai Wai Small Animal and Exotic Hospital, an expert in the field, these are the number one emergencies that require an urgent assessment with a vet. Respiratory distress could be a sign of a heart or respiratory problem, and it can also signal other very serious conditions. In cases like these, it is possible that your pet could deteriorate quickly, so take them to a vet immediately if you notice they are having difficulty breathing.

Severe bleeding or trauma

Severe bleeding or trauma is a serious emergency. If bleeding is severe or lasts more than five minutes, it must be checked by a vet as a matter of urgency—the vet will help to stop the bleeding by treating the cause of the haemorrhage. If there is a cut, this could be deeper than it appears and may need stitches. Trauma injuries are often very obvious, but if your pet fell from a height and there is no obvious wound or external bleeding, this does not mean that there is no internal damage, which could potentially be quite serious. Any pet with severe bleeding or trauma should be immediately brought to a vet for assessment.

Photo: Matt Pike (via Unsplash)

Inability to urinate

If your pet is unable to pass urine, this can progress to a life-threatening problem within a matter of hours. Animals tend to try to hide pain, so by the time owners notice a painful behaviour, it may often be too late. Remember to always check that your pet can pass urine normally. If your pet urinates a little or not at all each time they try to pee, sometimes even vocalising, the urinary tract may be blocked and immediate veterinary assistance is needed.

Ingesting a toxin or poison

A variety of household items, plants, and even some human food can be very toxic to our pets if ingested. Common foods that can threaten your dog’s life are foods containing the artificial sweetener xylitol, chocolate, and raisins or grapes. Lilies and other plants, or onions, can be poisonous to cats. Pet birds should never be fed avocado as it is toxic to them, and they can become poisoned by the gas released from Teflon pans, or if they ingest heavy metals like lead or zinc. Lead poisoning—chewing or licking lead-containing household substances, like painted surfaces or metallic objects—can also be a common cause of poisoning in rabbits.

Owners should watch their pets to ensure they don’t accidentally or willingly ingest toxic chemicals such as insecticides, rat and snail poison, toxins from mouldy food, household cleaners, prescription medicine, and fertilisers. If your animal has ingested something that you aren’t sure is a toxin, please make sure to contact your vet immediately for advice.

Photo: Tai Wai Small Animal and Exotic Hospital

Retching and bloated abdomen in dogs

Repeated, unproductive attempts at vomiting—especially if accompanied by a bloated abdomen—are often an early indication of gastric dilatation or volvulus. This is when the stomach becomes very dilated and rotates, causing a loop of the intestine to wrap around it, making it impossible for it to empty. This condition is extremely serious. Dogs can deteriorate and die quickly from it, so seek veterinary attention immediately.


Seizures in pets are often very brief. You could see muscles twitching or uncontrollable spasms, but at times, one can only see the loss of consciousness, drooling, or abnormal eye movements. In exotic mammals, reptiles, and birds, a seizure is always an emergency. 

If a dog or cat has a single seizure that stops in under two minutes, this does not represent an emergency, although it is recommended that the animal is checked by a vet within 24 hours. But if your dog or cat has more than one seizure in a short interval of time, or if the seizure does not stop after a couple of minutes, you need to seek immediate veterinary attention. Repeated or prolonged seizures can lead to organ damage or even death.

Photo: Tai Wai Small Animal and Exotic Hospital

Collapse or unconsciousness

This seems obvious, but some pet owners may think their animal is simply sleeping. If your pet cannot be roused from sleep or seems very weak and cannot stand up, contact a vet right away. The animal may have passed out. The vet will evaluate the patient to find out what could be happening to make your pet lose consciousness.

This could be due to a variety of problems including heart problems, brain conditions, low blood sugar, abnormal levels of electrolytes in the blood, liver or kidney conditions, and many other diseases. In many cases, a collapse episode only occurs once, but if your pet faints, seems very weak, or has a sudden blackout, get veterinary help immediately.

Severe vomiting or diarrhoea

Severe vomiting and diarrhoea are often signs of serious digestive tract upset, especially if associated with abdominal pain or lethargy. It’s important to find out why your pet is having this reaction. Act quickly to prevent dehydration, especially in small or younger pets. Remember to keep track of the amount and colour of the stool, as well as the presence of blood, as the vet team will ask you about it.

Photo: Tai Wai Small Animal and Exotic Hospital

Snake bites

If your pet is bitten by a snake, seek veterinary attention right away, even if you are not sure if the snake was venomous. If you have the chance, take a photo of the snake from a safe distance to show the vet during your visit. Any snake bites are painful and can cause infection, but venomous snake bites can kill a pet within hours unless treatment is provided right away, which will usually involve a dose of antivenom.

Rabbits and rodents refusing to eat

If your rabbit (or guinea pig or chinchilla) stops eating, this is a serious concern. Unlike many other species, who can cope with occasionally missing a meal, herbivores need to eat regularly to keep their guts moving. If your pet has stopped eating, they are at risk of serious complications such as gut stasis, gut blockage, dehydration, and liver disease. 

You may also see less or smaller-than-normal droppings before the gut stops moving. You should contact your vet immediately. Gut stasis can be caused by many conditions; the most common are dental disease, stress, and gut problems.

Photo: Tai Wai Small Animal and Exotic Hospital

Birds looking sick (fluffed up or at the bottom of the cage)

Birds are the masters of disguise when they are sick—this is a natural instinct in birds and many other creatures like rabbits, as appearing injured or weak will make them an easy target for predators. A healthy bird is always perky and alert during the day, actively feeding, preening, or moving around in its housing. 

If they are not asleep, the typical signs of a sick bird are if it is quiet, with eyes closed or partially closed, and feathers fluffed up. When a bird is in this condition, it means they have lost the ability to pretend they are well and are now very ill. Birds should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible. A thorough physical exam and possibly further diagnostics will help determine the cause of the illness and establish an appropriate treatment.

Heatstroke in dogs

Heatstroke is most common in the warm months but can happen to your dog any time of year. It can happen quite suddenly, often from being too active in the heat of the day or being left in parked cars or other areas which are far too hot for their ability to exchange heat by panting. This condition is especially frequent in brachycephalic breeds (dogs with short noses, like bulldogs). They are at risk of heatstroke at any time of the month, as their airways conformation often prevents efficient ventilation and heat dispersion. 

If you notice your dog cannot stop panting, drools abnormally, or appears restless and disoriented after a walk or physical activity (especially in the warmer months or if they are brachycephalic breeds), you should see your vet immediately. The veterinarian will be able to determine the severity of your dog’s condition and what kind of treatment is necessary.

Photo: Tai Wai Small Animal and Exotic Hospital

Now that you are aware of some of the most common pet emergencies, you can feel better prepared in taking action as soon as you notice something wrong with your pet. You can also prepare in advance by saving your trusted veterinary care provider’s contact information. 

Tai Wai Small Animal and Exotic Hospital is one such veterinary practice with over 25 years of experience treating animals of all kinds, including dogs, cats, birds, and hamsters, but also more exotic patients like snakes, lizards, tortoises, hedgehogs, and more. On top of that, its hospital facility provides 24-hour emergency and nursing care, making sure you and your pet are well-tended to, no matter what time of the day your emergency happens.

Tai Wai Small Animal and Exotic Hospital

Tai Wai Small Animal and Exotic Hospital was set up in 1997 as the first hospital fully equipped to provide specialist care for “exotic” pets as well as cat and dog patients. Over the years, it has grown; in 2014, the animal hospital started providing 24-hour animal care and emergency services, with 12 vets and over 60 support staff. Tai Wai Small Animal and Exotic Hospital is the only veterinary hospital in Hong Kong providing 24-hour care and emergency services for exotic pets. It is managed by Dr Gail Cochrane alongside Dr Erika Vernia, the veterinary director. In 2022, Tai Wai Small Animal and Exotic Hospital joined the family of Mars Veterinary Health business, which includes approximately 65,000 veterinary professionals globally.

(+852) 2687 1030