Should I Take My Dog to the Emergency Room?

A Sick Puppy Gets an IV at the Vet. Is Your Dog Sick? (Carol Adams Photo)
A Sick Puppy Gets an IV at the Vet. Is Your Dog Sick? (Carol Adams Photo)

There’s lots of instances when a dog owner may wonder, “Is my dog sick? Should I take him to the 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic?” Making the decision to take a pet to the emergency clinic can be a difficult one, especially since most emergency vet clinics charge $100+ just for an exam. So monitoring your pet’s vital signs at home can be a great way to determine how sick your dog may be.

But unfortunately, few dog owners know how to check a dog’s vital signs. In fact, many dog owners still believe in the myth of checking the dog’s nose for wetness or temperature. In reality, the temperature or wetness of a dog’s nose indicates nothing. The only surefire way to determine if a dog is sick is to check his vital signs. Depending on your findings, you’ll get a better idea of whether you can wait until morning to take your dog to the vet or if an emergency visit is in order.

How to Check Your Dog’s Vitals

Here’s the things you will want to check on your dog if you believe he is sick. Be sure to write down your findings, so you can show them to the veterinarian.

If you opt to keep your dog at home instead of taking him to the emergency clinic, you will want to check the following signs every 1-2 hours. Write down your findings each time so you can monitor your dog and determine if he’s getting better or getting worse.

  • Temperature – A normal temperature for a dog is between 100.5 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Do not check temperature right after the dog wakes up or right after exercise. This will skew the results.
  • Gums – Gums should be pink in color and moist and slick to the touch. If they are pale, sticky or dry, this is a problem. Visit How to Check a Dog’s Gums for more information on gum color and what gum discoloration means.
  • Heart Rate – Young puppies and small toy dogs will have a fast heart rate, averaging around 180 beats per minute. Medium and large dogs will have a heart rate – between 60-160 beats per minute. The larger the dog, the slower the normal heart rate.
  • Pulse – Pulse is taken in the extremities, while heart rate is monitored just above the heart. Pulse will be slightly slower than heart rate: 60 beats per minute for a large dog and 120 beats per minute for a small dog.
  • Respiration – Like pulse and heart rate, respiration rate varies depending on the dog’s size. Small dogs will have a faster respiration rate around 30 breaths per minute and larger dogs will have a slower rate of respiration around 10 breaths per minute.
  • Check for Dehydration – Check a dog for dehydration by pinching the skin at the dog’s scruff. Pull the skin upwards into a “tent” and then release. In a dehydrated dog, the skin will take several seconds to return to normal. The longer it takes the dog’s skin to return to normal, the more dehydrated the dog is. Dry gums are also a sign of dehydration.

Other Factors to Consider With a Sick Pet

In addition to considering the dog’s vital signs, it’s also important to look at the individual situation. An elderly dog or very young dog is likely to deteriorate quicker than a healthy, middle-aged dog. So that may be a case where you’d want to take a more conservative route by taking the dog to the emergency room.

You should also consider the dog’s overall health. A dog with a chronic disease or illness, like Addison’s Disease or Diabetes will be more likely to develop secondary problems relating to their underlying disease. So if your dog has a chronic illness or disease, you’d be smart to opt for the vet visit after-hours.

I always urge pet owners to trust their gut instinct. You know your dog better than anyone, which means you’re the best person to tell whether he’s seriously ill. If your dog’s vital signs look good, but you still have a really bad feeling, go with it and visit the emergency room. Pet parent intuition is very rarely wrong.

For more information on how to handle a sick pet, check out Handling Pet Emergencies.

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Mia Carter is a professional journalist and animal lover. Her furry family members include 6 dogs and 12 cats. She is also a feral cat colony caretaker. Carter specializes in pet training and special needs pet care. All of her animals have special needs such as paralysis, blindness, deafness and FIV, just to name a few. She also serves as a pet foster parent and she actively rehabilitates and rescues local strays and feral kittens.

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