Top 10 Reasons to Call the Vet, Now

The Editors of Prevention
Spot the signs that your pet's life could be in danger
Spot the signs that your pet's life could be in danger

By Arden Moore, Prevention

Just like us, our animal companions certainly aren't immune to diseases or mishaps. Unfortunately, they can be masters at masking their aches, pains, and hurts until the problem becomes major and obvious. But by knowing the early warning signs of trouble, you can step in and help your pet maintain good health while keeping your veterinarian bills down.

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"The earlier we catch a disease, the better chance we have to control it or even cure it," says William Fortney, DVM, a veterinarian and director of community practice at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Manhattan. "We encourage pet owners to pay attention to changes in behaviors and actions in their pets, which are early signs of possible trouble." Dr. Fortney, along with Tracy McFarland, DVM, a veterinarian specializing in cat care in Santa Clarita, CA, and Elysa Braunstein, VMD, a general small animal practitioner in the Los Angeles area, identified 10 situations an owner might overlook. (Don't fall for these Top 9 Pet Health Care Myths, though!)

Get to a vet as soon as possible if your pet shows any of these symptoms:

Breathing difficulties or intensifying coughing.
The gasping could be caused by an inhaled or swallowed object, or it could be related to asthma or other medical conditions. Cats who start coughing but do not throw up hair balls may be asthmatic. Dogs who experience coughing episodes may be suffering from a respiratory condition.

Strains and cries in the litter box.
Cats, especially males, who make more trips to the litter box than normal, only to end up straining and crying, may be suffering from urinary tract problems. This could include a blockage, which is a life threatening condition. "This is a big-time emergency. Your cat could die, so get to your veterinarian right away," advises Dr. McFarland. She recommends cleaning litter boxes daily so you can tell right away if there is a sudden drop in deposits of urine or feces. Sometimes people mistake frequent trips to the box for constipation, when in fact it may be bladder or kidney disease. Kidney disease could cause constipation in older cats.

Gets bit or scratched by a dog or cat.
Don't dismiss even minor tussles with other animals, including household pets. "You may think it's just a surface wound, but you can't tell how deep the wound penetrated or if there were any internal injuries," says Dr. Fortney. "When a big dog grabs a small dog or cat in his mouth and shakes him and drops him, this could cause internal damage, including a ruptured diaphragm or bruising of organs."

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Seek help within 48 hours if your pet shows any of these symptoms:

Bouts of vomiting and diarrhea.
Dogs and cats vomit often to empty their stomachs of things that don't agree with them. They also have sensitive digestive tracts and occasionally get diarrhea from raiding the trash or being exposed to parasites such as tapeworms. But your pet may have eaten something toxic such as chocolate or antifreeze. Contact your veterinarian if these digestive bouts last longer than a day or two, if they intensify, or if you notice blood.

Squints or closes one or both eyes.
Squinting that lasts more than a few seconds, especially in dimly lit rooms, could be caused by a piece of dirt or other debris lodged in the eye or a scratch on the cornea. Less common but equally serious causes could be glaucoma (pressure built up in the eye) or a detached retina. Also see the vet if your pet's eyes stay dilated or constricted or become red or cloudy.

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Make an appointment this week if your pet shows any of these symptoms:

Acts uncharacteristically lethargic.
If your high-energy beagle needs to be nudged from an all-day snooze, or your "alarm clock" calico doesn't sound her early morning feed-me-now meow for a day or two, these are telltale signs of a host of diseases, including anemia, heart problems, and poor circulation.

Starts eating or drinking substantially more or less.
Dogs and cats are creatures of routine. Cats, especially older ones, who suddenly wolf down more chow or lick the water bowl dry may be diabetic or suffering from hyperthyroidism. Dogs who stop being chowhounds and start losing weight could have digestion problems or even cancer.

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Emits foul breath. Doggie breath is not normal.
Foul smells in dogs or cats could signal dental problems (gingivitis or decaying teeth) or internal problems such as kidney disease or diabetes. Check the condition of your pet's teeth and gums at least weekly. Press on the gum line, and release; the gums should blanch but return to a normal pink color (or black in certain breeds) in 1 or 2 seconds.

Suddenly starts having "accidents" in the house. For years, your dog has been the model of bathroom etiquette. Then suddenly, you come home to puddles or worse on the living room rug or kitchen floor. The cause may be either a medical or behavioral problem. "Inappropriate urination is very often due to a urinary tract infection. But it could be the result of a behavioral problem triggered by changes in the household or stress due to other dogs in the neighborhood," says Dr. Braunstein. "Report inappropriate elimination problems to a veterinarian so that your dog can be treated quickly. If there is a behavioral problem, you want to nip it in the bud before it becomes ingrained. If there is a medical problem, you want to treat it quickly before it worsens."

Falls and lands hard or clumsily.
Your snoozing cat gets startled, tumbles from the bookshelf, and lands with a far-from-graceful thud on the ground. Or your in-full-stride dog slips on the tile floor and slams into the corner of the kitchen wall. Don't dismiss their limps or stiff movements. "They may appear okay on the outside, but they could have suffered some internal bruising or damage," says Dr. Fortney. "A physical exam that includes x-rays will be able to determine the extent of the damage."

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