Is it an Emergency?

You finish a hike and notice your dog’s face is swelling like a basketball. You’re backcountry skiing and your friend’s ski slices your dog’s leg open. You see your cat holding up one leg when he comes in.

Chances are good you’ve been in similar situations with your pets. Maybe you rushed to the veterinary hospital only to learn that the problem was minor. Or maybe you didn’t go immediately and learned that the delay caused a serious issue to become even worse. How do you know what to do?

Take a minute to evaluate your pet and apply basic first aid. You might find that a burr between your cat's toes, and not a broken leg, is causing the limping. But if you would take a friend with the same problem to the emergency room, then you should seek care for your pet.

Part of knowing what is or is not an emergency is knowing your pet. Does he eat unusual things? If so, then vomiting once or twice might be expected, but if it persists it could mean a blockage. If your dog is allergy-prone, then minor skin irritations can become major dermatitis if not treated promptly. If your cat is normally playful, then lying in one place all day might indicate a fever. Know your pet’s habits, what his normal gum color is, how her stools look, and breed-specific problems.

Here are a few specific situations you might encounter. It is by no means a comprehensive list, so seek veterinary advice if you have any doubt about what to do.

Most wounds large enough for you to notice need medical attention within 12 hours. Paw-pad cuts always need stitches with few exceptions. In general, fur can trap bacteria and make wound cleaning difficult. Pets are dirtier than us, so infections develop more easily. Faster treatment results in faster healing.

Toxic Ingestion
From compost piles to carcasses, pets will eat many things. The mushrooms in your yard are probably not toxic, but some bulbs are; cocoa is indeed toxic to dogs, and some human medications can be lethal to cats. A phone call, even in the middle of the night, will help determine the danger level.

Even though a red, squinty, crusty eye is a common pet problem, always seek treatment for an eye problem. There is no easy way for you to determine if it is simple irritation or glaucoma that can cause blindness in as little as 24 hours.

For more general information, check out Field Guide to Dog First Aid by Randy Acker DVM, The Complete Home Veterinary Guide by Chris Pinney DVM, and the Animal Poison Control Center (follow the link from

Canine First-Aid Kit

Here are some basics to keep in your vehicle or to pack for your four-legged friend. All of these items are the same ones you have in your medicine cabinet or your own first-aid kit, with a few exceptions.

The Basics:
Bandage material (Ace bandage-type)
Nonstick pads
Athletic tape
Antibiotic ointment
Antihistamine (i.e., Benadryl, not combined with sinus, flu, or pain medication)
Tweezers or needle-nosed pliers
Small scissors
Disinfectant (povidone iodine or chlorhexidine)
Anti-inflammatory (avoid human over-the-counter pain medications unless directed by your veterinarian)

The Extras:
Hot and cold packs
Bulb syringe
Splint material
Skin glue or stapler
Hydrogen peroxide (to induce vomiting)

Check with your veterinarian for purchasing a kit and some of the dog-specific components. Canine first-aid kits are available at many sporting-goods and pet-supply stores.

Forgot your first-aid kit? Socks work well to bandage paws and lower legs; lightly tape them to fur at the cuff. A t-shirt or sweatshirt on the front or back half of the body covered with a belt, wind pants, duct tape, or straps can protect wounds to the chest, abdomen, or back. And contrary to popular belief about the cleanliness of a dog’s mouth, licking a wound can make it worse.

Liz Layne practices small-animal medicine at Creekside Veterinary Hospital in Bozeman.