Picture this: It's late in the evening when you realize that something is very wrong with your dog.
Your normal veterinary clinic is closed, but you're not sure if the problem can wait until tomorrow. You rush your pet to the closest emergency room and hope for the best.
Visiting the veterinary emergency room is a pet parent's worst nightmare, but every day across America, pets become ill, suffer injuries, ingest poison or worse — requiring immediate veterinary care.
Even the most diligent pet parents can't protect their furry family members all the time, but there are a few things you can do to help ensure you never find yourself in this scenario.
"As dogs can't communicate directly with us (e.g., via talking), it's so important that we be able to be our pet's advocate," said Dr. Justine Lee, emergency critical care and toxicology veterinary specialist, and author of "It's a Dog's Life ... But It's Your Carpet."
What's the best way to be your pet's advocate?
"By making sure that we're keeping them healthy," Lee said. "Annual checkups at the vet are so important because it allows us, as veterinarians, to be able to pick up on clinical problems sooner. Through a thorough history and physical examination, we're able to pick up on metabolic problems, cancer, behavioral problems, etc., much earlier on."
Lee stresses that preventive care is key to maintaining your pet's ongoing health. A balanced diet that includes a meat-based food is a good start. "Make sure the ingredients are high-quality, sourced or made in the USA, and ingredients that you can understand when you read them," Lee said.
In addition to quality supermarket pet food, supplements can serve as another way to keep your pet's health on track.
"Some dogs need supplements — those on homemade or raw-food diets, or those with certain medical conditions," Lee said. "My own dog is a healthy, 2-year-old mutt, but he's got really dry, flaky skin and severe allergies. I've had him on Nordic Naturals Omega-3 Pet since he was a puppy, and his coat and allergies have dramatically improved. It's safe and benign, and also may help with joint health, too. My dog eats the soft gels when I throw them in with his kibble and he loves them."
Beyond preventive health, if you find yourself in a situation where your pet is inexplicably ill, Lee recommends seeking veterinary attention as soon as a problem is noticeable. Avoid the wait-and-see approach, because delaying could make things much worse.
"The top reasons I see pets in the ER include trauma, vomiting, accidental poisonings and cancer," said Lee. Steps to keep your dog out of the ER include:
1. Keep him well-supervised and on a leash.
2. Always monitor your dog when he's chewing on a toy (so he doesn't swallow it).
3. Don't feed your dog table scraps — fatty meals can result in pancreatitis, inflammation of the pancreas that requires immediate medical attention.
4. Monitor your dog for any abnormalities, including difficult breathing, acute collapse or weakness, abnormal swellings, weight loss, lethargy or refusal to eat. While this list isn't all inclusive, when in doubt, contact a veterinarian for peace of mind.
"Remember, the sooner you notice these clinical signs and seek veterinary attention, the sooner your veterinarian can treat it and prevent the need for life-saving, emergency care," said Lee.
Pet-proofing your home is a necessity, according to Lee. Crate train your dog, keep medications out of reach, lock chemicals in cabinets, etc. If your dog gets into something poisonous, the first thing you can do is call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435 to determine whether you should induce vomiting.
Lee recommends programming your phone with numbers for your veterinarian, emergency veterinarian and animal poison control. Likewise, pre-program your GPS in your car with these locations as "Favorites" so you can get there quickly if needed. Additionally, always have your pet's medical records, including blood work, in a folder where you can access it when necessary.