The three most common life-threatening emergencies with pets are poisoning, traumatic accidents and a blocked bladder, according to Dr David Gething, of the Animal Emergency Centre www.animalemergency.com.hk.

Poisoning cases are usually accidental, with an animal eating something they found, such as rat poison or cockroach bait, and a surprising number of cases involve an owner's medication, according to Gething.

"It is also important to note that a number of our poisoning cases occur when people give their pets human painkillers of any kind, as they are highly toxic for dogs and cats. Some foods, such as chocolate, onions, garlic and coffee, are also poisonous for dogs and cats."

The most common signs of poisoning include vomiting and diarrhoea, drooling, shivering or seizures and, in some cases, lethargy and confusion, but signs vary depending on the toxin involved. "If you suspect poisoning, the first step is to carefully remove any remaining toxic material from the mouth to prevent further absorption. Wash your hands thoroughly afterwards to prevent any self-exposure. [Then] I would recommend immediately calling your vet or a veterinary emergency clinic," Gething says.

In some cases, the problem can be solved over the phone, but it may also be necessary to rush the pet in for treatment. "Time is of the essence in poisoning cases - if the pet can receive medical attention fast enough, the vet will usually induce vomiting in the animal to remove the toxin, and then will give tablets to absorb any further poison and prevent any organ damage. Dogs and cats are surprisingly resilient and, with careful, timely and effective therapy, most cases are successful."

In terms of traumatic accidents, the most common causes are dog fights, getting hit by a car and falling - mostly from furniture but occasionally from a balcony or window. "Common signs that suggest an animal is in danger following a traumatic accident include significant bleeding, not being able to walk or stand on one leg, breathing deeply and rapidly, pale gums and lethargy," the vet says. Some problems, such as internal bleeding, may not be immediately obvious but can become life-threatening later, so Gething recommends having a pet checked if it has had a significant accident.

He also advises that the animal be gently carried to the vet if possible, and not made to walk, which may cause further strain. "The vet will generally examine the animal for signs of blood loss, respiratory problems, broken bones or other issues, and in some cases may need to take X-rays or perform an ultrasound to check for internal injuries, with treatment dependent on the degree of damage."

A blocked bladder is especially frequent among Hong Kong pets, according to Gething. It occurs when the urethra is obstructed, usually by a stone or bladder crystals. "Blocked bladders are more common in males than females, and more common in cats than dogs, but it can occur in any animal."

It is extremely serious and painful, as the animal can no longer pass urine, and as such cannot eliminate toxins from the body. This results in metabolites and by-products building up in the bloodstream and causing the blood to become toxic. "A blocked bladder must be remedied immediately, and if not treated will be rapidly fatal," Gething says.

Common signs include the animal frequently trying to urinate but not producing urine, or sometimes just a drop or two. A cat suffering from a blocked bladder will go to the litter tray repeatedly and howl painfully as it tries to urinate. As the condition becomes worse and the blood becomes toxic, Gething says the dog or cat will often start vomiting, become lethargic and will feel severe pain around the abdomen.

"If you suspect your pet has a blocked bladder, it is vital to seek emergency treatment. In most cases, the condition can be treated using a small tube to unblock the pipes, but most animals will also need to stay in hospital for a few days on a drip to help flush the toxins out of the blood," he says. "It is interesting to note that most cases of bladder stones occur when animals eat a low-quality or poorly balanced diet."

While these three types of cases account for the majority of pet emergencies, Gething says: "If your pet seems weak, tired, is breathing abnormally, has repeated episodes of vomiting or diarrhoea, is having trouble walking or balancing, or you are concerned there may be a problem, seek immediate treatment, as it will make all the difference." 

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