Our pets can't talk to us to tell us what's wrong or when they don't feel well. Here, a veterinarian shares nine signs that show your pet needs immediate medical attention. Here's what to look for.

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One Friday around midnight, my dog Rio started acting strange. The 9-year-old Labrador retriever mix refused to take his medicine, even with it tucked into his favorite food. Then he kept circling the fence line when my husband, Bryan, and I let our dogs out for one last potty. We called to Rio and coaxed him with food. But the dog who lives to please wouldn't come.

I looked at Bryan with dread. "Something is seriously wrong," I said. "We have to go to the ER. Now."

Thank goodness we did. Over the course of a harrowing weekend, the team at Wheat Ridge Animal Hospital in metro Denver saved Rio's life. It turned out he had severe colitis, a dangerous inflammation in his colon. I wept when I got the call that they'd stabilized his condition.

Gail Golab, DVM, PhD, and chief veterinary officer of the American Veterinary Medical Association, says unusual behavior in dogs and cats may indicate an underlying medical issue. 

"In nature, it can be self-preserving to minimize signs of pain and weakness, so signs of pain in animals can sometimes be subtle," she says. "If a problem is detected in its early stages, it's more likely to be treated and resolved with less expense, less difficulty, and a greater likelihood of success."

9 Signs You Need to Get Your Pet to the Emergency Room

So how can we know when our pet needs immediate veterinary treatment? 

Sharon L. Campbell, DVM, MS, DACVIM at Zoetis Petcare, shares nine signs that a pet needs to go to the vet right away. Each of the signs involves a serious, potentially fatal medical condition.

1. Straining to Urinate or Defecate

Either symptom can indicate the presence of a tumor or neurological issues, Campbell says. Often a bladder stone can block urine from leaving the body and cause buildup. The excess pressure can rupture the bladder or cause kidney failure or kidney disease

2. Fainting, Sudden Collapse, Unconsciousness, Disorientation, or Seizures

Any of these symptoms can indicate problems like anemia, infectious disease, lung issues, or internal bleeding, she says: "Fainting is usually due to a heart issue; the animal is not getting enough oxygen to their brain." 

3. Weakness, Inability to Stand, Wobbling, or Dragging Hind Legs

These symptoms may reflect a problem with the brain, spine, heart, or lungs. "If a cat drags a leg, it's often because they've thrown a clot to the arteries that supply blood to the hind limbs," Campbell says. "That condition needs to be treated immediately or the animal may permanently lose function of his hind limbs."

dog with vet
Credit: Westend61 / Adobe Stock

4. Lack of Appetite, Repeated Vomiting, Diarrhea, Not Drinking Water, or Unproductive Retching

Campbell says these symptoms are often seen together. If you notice blood in the vomit or stool, time is critical. Your pet may have ingested a toxin (such as antifreeze, poisonous plants, or the sugar substitute xylitol), contracted an infectious disease, or developed dysfunction in his organs. Retching can be a sign of bloat—when your pet's stomach fills with gas and twists upon itself, possibly obstructing blood flow. "If it's a single sign by itself that lasts more than 24 hours, that's an emergency," Campbell says. "Or if you see these signs together—even just one or two episodes—your pet needs to be evaluated." Seriously, folks— right away.

5. Difficulty or Labored Breathing, Choking, or Nonstop Coughing

Breathing issues can be a sign of underlying heart disease, Campbell says. Choking indicates something is caught in a pet's trachea that prevents him from breathing. Coughing may indicate collapsing trachea or an infectious disease called tracheobronchitis. If your pet coughs blood, pick up the phone immediately. "Anytime you see blood, something really serious is going on in your pet's body," she says.

6. Squinting, a Swollen Eye, or a Bleeding Eye, Nose, or Mouth

A bleeding eye can indicate any number of underlying diseases or conditions—such as when an animal's blood doesn't clot normally. Additionally, sometimes trauma causes an eye to pop out of its socket. "Obviously that's painful and serious," Campbell says. "You've got to get that animal in [to the vet] right away or he could lose his vision, or even the whole eye." 

7. Swollen Limbs or Limping

These symptoms may mean a dog or cat is experiencing muscle trauma, a broken bone, or Lyme disease. Overall swelling or hives might indicate an allergic reaction that could lead to anaphylactic shock. If a pet limps for more than a day, it's time to call your veterinarian. If your dog is not putting any weight on the leg at all, it's an emergency. 

8. Whining, Shaking, or Restlessness Without a Reason

Some cats and dogs show signs of stress during fireworks displays or thunderstorms. But when they act anxious seemingly out of the blue without other visible symptoms, they're most likely in pain. "If they're just not themselves, that's definitely a cause for concern," Campbell says.

9. Excessive Panting

Dogs pant because they can't sweat like humans do. So pooches are prone to heat stroke in hot weather, which can quickly turn deadly as their body temperature rises and their organs shut down. That's why leaving a dog or cat in a hot car or leaving them outside on a hot day without a way to escape the heat poses a huge risk. 

What to Do If You Notice These Signs

If you notice any of these symptoms, call your veterinarian to learn if there's anything you should do at home before you bring your pet into the clinic. It may help to use your phone to record a video of your pet's behavior or set up a video call with your vet. Once at the hospital, the veterinary team will conduct a thorough physical exam and run tests to determine the cause of your pet's symptoms. 

"They will do everything possible—as quickly as possible—to diagnose your pet, start his treatment, and get him back home to you," Campbell says.