While I hope you never have to take your puppy to the veterinarian in an emergency situation, I would like to relay some common reasons for needing to do so and what to expect at the clinic. Being a specialist in emergency and critical care, I have seen my share of emergencies involving puppies. Some are definitely accidents and can happen to any owner, while others could have been prevented with just a bit of research before adopting or purchasing a puppy.
Dogs are considered puppies from birth until they reach reproductive maturity. There is quite a bit of variation in the age that reproductive maturity occurs. It’s mainly based on the dog’s size and lineage. Large- and giant-breed dogs reach sexual maturity later than small and toy breeds.
In most states, you cannot purchase a puppy less than 8 weeks of age from a registered seller — meaning a person or company who sells a certain number of dogs per year. Why is this important? (Because it is still possible to get a puppy who is less than 8 weeks old.) The reason the 8-week benchmark is so important is because that’s the time when the first vaccines, preventive parasite control and heartworm preventive medication should be started. So, if you get a puppy who hasn’t received this care, you must make sure your puppy gets the proper vaccines and preventive care.
Veterinary emergency rooms are typically privately owned, and providing this service is more expensive than operating a daytime practice. People who work night hours or “off hours” are paid more of a premium. So, expect that an emergency room visit will cost approximately twice as much or more than a visit during regular hours. Also, the emergency room fee only covers the exam. Any tests, treatments, surgery or hospitalization create additional fees.
Emergency veterinary rooms use triage when assessing a patient who comes rushing in. During triage, a member of the veterinary staff assesses your pet’s vital signs and gets a very brief history of “what happened.” If the condition is serious and potentially life-threatening, the patient will likely be taken to the “back” or treatment area for emergency interventions like providing oxygen, stopping bleeding or bandaging an open wound. Therefore, don’t be surprised that your puppy with a bit of diarrhea and normal vital signs must wait while other, sicker patients are treated.
Common Causes Of Pet Emergencies
Some common disorders that lead to an emergency vet visit with your puppy are juvenile hypoglycemia, dietary indiscretion, trauma, poisoning and near drowning.
1. Juvenile Hypoglycemia
This primarily affects small and toy breeds like Pomeranians and Chihuahuas. Hypoglycemia is the medical term for low blood sugar, and puppies are more prone to developing this because they are immature. The organ that stores sugar, in the form of glycogen, is the liver. Normal, adult dog livers have about 24 hours worth of glycogen storage. Puppies do not have this ability, because their livers are still growing. Toy breeds are affected more than larger breeds because of their body mass to surface area ratio and their more rapid metabolism.
The common scenario occurs right after the holidays, when someone gets a puppy as a present. While the kids are home from school and adults have a few days off from work, there’s no problem. Everyone is with the puppy, making sure he eats and gets lots of attention. Then school starts, along with Mom and Dad going back to work. The puppy is alone, scared and not eating every two to four hours like he should be. Owners then arrive home from work to find the puppy is drooling and not responsive. This leads to a mad rush to the emergency vet.
It’s very important that puppies, especially toy breeds, eat every few hours so this doesn’t happen. Signs of low blood sugar include weakness, not being responsive, drooling and seizures.
If you find your puppy to be very lethargic and no one was home for a while, rub some maple syrup on his gums and consult a vet. If your puppy is seizuring, like a person with epilepsy, go to the vet immediately!
2. Dietary Indiscretion
This is a medical term for “getting into something.” The “something” could be the garbage, a bag of chocolates or your shoes. Basically, anything that isn’t dog food or dog treats that your puppy chews up is considered dietary indiscretion.
Have you ever heard the term “kill him with kindness?” Many pet owners, me included, have given table scraps to our puppies when they are begging during human mealtime. The common result is vomiting and diarrhea. Many disorders can cause vomiting and diarrhea — from just getting a piece of fatty steak to ingesting a deadly anti-freeze toxin. So please, be honest with the veterinary staff when they ask if you fed Fido anything besides his regular diet. We won’t judge you; we want to know so we can help.
Signs of dietary indiscretion can vary from not eating and one bout of vomiting to vomiting every hour, abdominal pain and dehydration. Treatment depends on the severity. Puppies who just have some diarrhea will get a stool sample checked for parasites, a bland diet, and a short course of antibiotics/antidiarrheal medication. But puppies who are vomiting, lethargic and have abdominal pain will have a full set of blood tests, X-rays of the abdomen, parasite stool check and maybe an ultrasound of the abdomen. Those dehydrated, weak puppies will also likely spend the night in the hospital with an IV to replenish the fluids that were lost.
Trust me, I know it’s hard to resist those big brown eyes and whimpering while you are eating that meatloaf, but don’t give Fido any!
Accidents causing injury range from a short fall when the puppy tries to jump onto the couch to life-threatening injuries if the puppy runs into the street and gets hit by a car. Hopefully you will not face these scenarios or anything in between.
Should an injury occur, here are some tips for dealing with it:
- Be careful! Dogs and puppies in pain might bite. You can use a leash, belt or necktie to create a muzzle if your injured puppy needs to picked up, but is in so much pain that he is biting at everyone.
- Place a clean cloth, T-shirt or towel over open, bleeding wounds. Do not use tourniquets.
- Use a box, towel, sheet or basket as a stretcher to transport large puppies who cannot walk.
- Contact the veterinary office right away and let them know you are coming in as an emergency.
- Use blankets, jackets or other clothing to cover your injured puppy.
Once at the veterinary hospital, a staff member will take your puppy to the treatment area to provide oxygen, pain medication and other measures. You may not see the veterinarian for a bit, and you may not be told every detail of what is happening while your puppy receives life-saving measures. Everything will be gone over with you in due course. Right now, the focus is on treating the puppy.
While most traumatic accidents are unavoidable, improper restraint and pet handling can be contributing factors. After the holidays, we tend to see quite a few small- and toy-breed puppies being dropped by children. Take some time to instruct children on the proper way to pick up and carry a puppy. Or, make a “no-pick-up puppy” rule until they are old enough.
Try to have layers of defense against escape. If the puppy is at home, keep him in an area that can be closed off, like a bedroom or gated family room. Keep the doors to the outside closed and, finally, have the yard fence closed off. Always put a leash on your puppy when leaving the house. If you don’t have a fenced yard, then I recommend you go outside with your puppy on a leash.
4. Poisons/Toxins In The Home
Puppies are very inquisitive about their environment, sniffing and tasting everything. However, quite a few household items can cause severe illness, and only small amounts need to be ingested to cause big problems.
Antifreeze: Antifreeze, degreasers and some cleaners contain glycol compounds: ethylene glycol is in antifreeze and propylene glycol is found in degreasers (grill cleaners). When those chemicals are ingested, they are metabolized or converted by the liver into harmful compounds, causing illness. Symptoms include vomiting, abnormal behavior and seizures. Finally, those metabolites eventually form calcium oxalate in the kidneys, resulting in kidney failure. Luckily, there are antidotes, but they must be given within a few hours of ingestion. If there’s any doubt, have your puppy seen right away; there are tests your veterinarian can do to confirm antifreeze poisoning.
Over-the-counter painkillers or NSAIDs: NSAIDs are “non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.” They range from aspirin to ibuprofen, ketoprofen and naproxen. While they are great for us when we have a headache, these medications can create havoc in a puppy. NSAIDs are known for causing damage to two organs: the GI tract (stomach) and the kidneys. The way NSAIDs block inflammation, easing pain, is the same way they can injure the stomach lining and the kidneys, leading to ulcers and kidney damage. It’s not easy to test the blood for exposure; samples go to a special lab and take at least 24 hours to get results. So, if you bring your puppy to the ER and say, “I think he ate some Aleve,” the staff will want to know the strength of the drug, how many may have been ingested and the time it could have taken place.
Any drugs can cause trouble for a puppy. For most drugs, toxins and poisonous plants, the sooner the ER can treat the exposure, the better — and better the outcome. For some toxins, we can give drugs that induce vomiting, so if there are tablets of aspirin still in the stomach, they’ll be ejected. An absorbitent, called “activated charcoal” will bind up and not allow drugs to be digested in the intestines. Specific antidotes can also be administered, but, again, time is of the essence.
5. Near Drowning
Many of us live near water or have a backyard pool. While puppies can instinctively try to swim, if they cannot reach an exit or are trapped in a pond, they will ingest water. If that water is inhaled, it will get into their lungs. Once in the lungs, the water fills the tissue, not allowing oxygen to be inhaled with the air. Water in the airways can also lead to a condition called “ARDS” or acute respiratory distress syndrome. Basically, the inhaled water causes the lungs to become inflamed. The inflammation creates even more fluid, which fill the lungs, inhibiting proper ventilation. Once the “ARDS” process starts, it’s very difficult to stop and there is little we can do to treat the affected puppy except give oxygen and artificial ventilation. Be sure to keep a pool fence up and a pool alarm that goes off when the water surface is disrupted. Always supervise your puppies when outside, especially near ponds or lakes.
Hopefully, you’ll never need to use the information from this article, but I hope it provides you with some idea of what are common reasons puppies go to emergency vets and what happens there.