One Christmas Eve many years ago, I decided to kill some time before heading over to a family gathering by cutting the nails on all my dogs. (Yes, I know it's odd, but I'll say in my own defense that the presents were already wrapped and I had nothing else to do.)
Somehow I managed to cut so deeply into one nail that I could not stop the bleeding. So instead of opening presents, I found myself opening my checkbook at the emergency clinic, along with a handful of other pet lovers with timing or luck just as bad as my own. Among them I remember a puppy with parvo, an ancient cat with breathing problems and a dog with ... tapeworms.
The last was hardly an emergency, but the pet's owner didn't know that. She'd seen something come out of her dog that she was convinced was a part of his intestine. The veterinary technician was kind enough to set her straight without charge and with instructions to visit her regular veterinarian after the holidays.
While it might be tempting to snicker at a person who didn't recognize a tapeworm, she was truly doing her pet a service. She thought something was wrong and didn't wait to find out what it was. That's much better than those people who wait to get sick animals treated, even when their pets are clearly in pain.
But how do you know when a situation is critical enough to find a veterinarian immediately? Anything is worth at least a call if you're not sure what's wrong, but some things require urgent attention. Here are some signs that should have you heading for your veterinarian's or for the emergency clinic:
-- Seizure, fainting or collapse.
-- Eye injury, no matter how mild.
-- Vomiting or diarrhea -- anything more than two or three times within an hour or so.
-- Allergic reactions, such as swelling around the face, or hives, most easily seen on the belly.
-- Any suspected poisoning, including antifreeze, rodent or snail bait or human medication. Cats are especially sensitive to insecticides (such as flea-control medication for dogs) or any petroleum-based product.
-- Snake or venomous spider bites.
-- Thermal stress -- from being either too cold or too hot -- even if the pet seems to have recovered. (The internal story could be quite different.)
-- Any wound or laceration that's open and bleeding, or any animal bite.
-- Trauma, such as being hit by a car, even if the pet seems fine. (Again, the situation could be quite different on the inside.)
-- Any respiratory problem: chronic coughing, trouble breathing or near drowning.
-- Straining to urinate or defecate.
Although some other problems aren't life threatening, they may be causing your pet pain and should be taken care of without delay. Signs of pain include panting, labored breathing, increased body temperature, lethargy, restlessness, crying out, aggression and loss of appetite. Some pets seek company when suffering, while others will withdraw.
When in doubt, err on the side of caution, always. Better to be dead wrong about a minor medical problem than to have a pet who's dead because you guessed wrong about a major one. Call your veterinary clinic or hospital before you need help and ask what arrangements the staff suggests for emergency or after-hours care. If your veterinarian refers clients to an emergency clinic after regular business hours, be sure you know which clinic, what the phone number is and how to get there.
I got lucky that Christmas Eve with a fast and relatively inexpensive resolution to my pet's emergency, but I'm always aware that next time I might not be so fortunate. Which is why I know whom to call and where to go whenever I need help for my pets. And also why I also have resolved never to clip nails on a holiday again.
PETS ON THE WEB
The Dog Boot Company (www.dogbootcompany.com) is all about keeping canine paws warm, clean and dry through all kinds of weather, with a collection of hard-wearing footwear for dogs of all sizes. Paw protection is not cheap -- four of the short boots will set you back $30, before shipping and handling -- but if you live in a place where snow and slush are part of walking the dog, boots might end up saving you some clean-up time in the house, as well as increased comfort for your dog. The company says the taller boots will stand up to field conditions as well, protecting the legs of hunting dogs from brambles and thorns.
Another idea to keep cats out of houseplants comes from reader Sharon Richardson. "During the 40 years my husband and I have been married, we have almost always been owned by a cat or two or more," she writes: "One of my best ideas has been to 'plant' faux greenery under the real plants where cats want to dig. Under a large split leaf philodendron I planted three curly Boston ferns by just sticking them in the soil. You would be surprised how good they look, certainly better than foil and such. The plastic greenery can be pulled out occasionally to be dusted by dunking them in a sinkful of water and dish detergent. Craft stores have a good assortment of plants that will work."
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I have a question about my dachshund. Her left eye tends to become very dry and will secrete a greenish fluid. My vet gave me an ointment to moisten her eye, but she hates having it put in so much that I think it might sting. My question is: Can I use any of the human, over-the-counter drops for her eyes? -- S.V., via e-mail
A: Whenever a medication your veterinarian gives you doesn't do the trick for any reason, you need to go back for further assistance. Every day I hear from people whose pets are still living with problems that would be treatable if their owners had pursued follow-up care. A medication may need to be stronger, given longer or may need to be changed, decisions that can be made only by a veterinarian.
Since those of use who are not veterinarians are often way off the mark when it comes to a proper diagnosis, I advise that over-the-counter remedies be purchased and used only as part of treatment program recommended by your veterinarian. If you don't know what you're treating, an over-the-counter remedy could be a waste of money, and could possibly do more harm than good.
Q: My wife recently returned after visiting the home of some friends. While there, she evidently picked up some fleas from their dog. We killed one and identified it from pictures. How do we inform the family that their home and dog are infested with fleas? -- G.P., via e-mail
A: This seems more like an etiquette question than a pet question, but I'll blunder ahead anyway. If you think they'll take the news in the helpful spirit in which you offer it, then be frank with them. If you think it would harm the friendship, think up reasons for them to visit in your home -- and leave their dog behind. For the good of their suffering dog, though, I hope you can be honest with them. I used to get questions like yours all the time, along with hundreds of other flea-related pieces of mail. But these days, I don't get many flea questions, thanks to the topical monthly flea-control medications Frontline and Advantage.
The bad old days I do not miss, either as a pet columnist or as a pet keeper. I used to dip my poor dogs in products so vile that they gave me asthma, and were barely effective at keeping the parasites in check. And my own mother, who's very sensitive to flea bites, would neither visit my home nor allow my dogs in hers.
Since the new generation of flea-control remedies came out a few years back, I haven't seen a flea on any of my pets, even when I lived for a few months in Florida, where the warm, moist climate is flea paradise and my dogs swam every day. The new medications stood up to this most difficult of tests.
My mother feels safe in visiting my home these days -- the only danger now is dog kisses. I hope your friends will also catch on to modern flea-control so your wife will be comfortable visiting in their home again and their dog will be spared the misery of the constant torment of these tiny pests.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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