Artwork by Susie Ghahremani

EARLIER THIS YEAR, I took my cat to the vet because he was peeing in weird places.

Some Googling had indicated that peeing outside the box was a common sign of urinary tract infections, so I wasn't too concerned—until the vet told me my cat's kidneys were shutting down and that if he didn't get fluids immediately, he was going to die. After three days of crying while rushing the cat to tests, specialists, and overnight emergency care, he was fine and I was $1,800 poorer. (Decide now, while your pet is healthy, how much you can spend on their care. Take it from me: It's nearly impossible to make bottom-line decisions in the moment an emergency is actually happening.)

We still don't know what, exactly, was wrong with him. But the vets agreed that he certainly would've died if he hadn't received care as quickly as he did. In the interest of helping other people keep their pets safe, DoveLewis' chief medical officer, Lee Herold, took some time out of her busy schedule of keeping pets alive to answer questions about when a pet's health issue becomes an emergency.

MERCURY: Are there any symptoms or behaviors that translate to "Drop everything and get your pet the hospital right this second?"

LEE HEROLD: If your pet appears to be struggling for air for any reason, they should be taken to a veterinarian's office immediately. Cats almost always breathe through their nose, so a cat that is open-mouth breathing or panting is very unusual. Panting is normal for most dogs, because that's how they cool themselves, but there are still some things that you would be able to recognize at home that may indicate breathing difficulty in your dog. For example, if your dog is breathing with their mouth closed but puffing out the sides of their lips or muzzle or extending their neck forward to try to catch a breath—these indicate difficulty breathing and should be checked out a by vet.

If your pet falls unconscious or collapses for any length of time they should be taken to a veterinarian immediately.

Another thing that should prompt an immediate visit for a dog is a bloated appearance to the abdomen that comes on very suddenly, combined with uncontrollable retching. This is a sign of a life-threatening condition called gastric dilatation and volvulus. This condition constitutes an emergency and should be evaluated immediately.

Are there things pet owners should do in emergency situations that might improve their pet's chances of a good outcome? What about non-immediately life-threatening situations (say, a cat comes home with a giant scrape on his face)?

A good rule of thumb for emergencies is to keep a calm head, and try to relax. If you use a couple of seconds to take some deep breaths and think about what you would do if your pet's injury or illness was happening to a family member or child, you will probably come to the right decisions about the pet.

With respect to wounds, like your cat scenario, one of the things we can do to improve outcomes is to protect the wound or injury from the pet itself. Unfortunately for dogs and cats, it is in their nature to lick, try to clean, or scratch at injuries. Licking, scratching, or biting at wounds on their body will increase the risk of infection, can damage the skin, and can compromise blood supply to the tissues around the wound. An easy way to temporarily cover wounds on the body of dogs and cats is by putting a loose T-shirt on your pet. For cats, toddler T-shirts or infant onesies work well. The most effective way to prevent self-trauma to a wound is a cone or e-collar, if you have one on hand.

Are there any commonly overlooked symptoms that people should watch out for?

Occasional vomiting and diarrhea are common in dogs and cats and in many cases will improve quickly. However, if vomiting and diarrhea continue for more than a day, or if ever there appears to be blood in the vomit or feces, then your pet should be checked by a vet.

What about seasonal perils, environmental factors, that sort of thing?

Holidays are times when our household pets can encounter some unrecognized "hazards." Irrespective of the holiday, they are usually celebrated with gatherings with family, friends, food, and feasting. The abundance of food and feasting is sometimes inadvertently shared with our dogs. We at DoveLewis have to treat many pets that develop vomiting and diarrhea after eating the leftover turkey dinner at Christmas and Thanksgiving. We treat animals for eating large and toxic quantities of chocolate and candies often around Halloween, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter.

With summer—even here in the Pacific Northwest—comes much-needed sunshine and time outside, for both us and our pets. One thing to remember is the danger of excessive heat exposure. Exercising a dog on a hot summer day or leaving a pet in an enclosed area such as a car can result in disastrous consequences ranging from vomiting and diarrhea to collapse and death. Always make sure your pet has access to water and shade and avoid excessive playing or exercise during the hottest parts of the day. If your pet develops difficulty walking, constant panting, or collapses during the warm weather—and you suspect heat exhaustion—wet the fur with warm water and bring your pet immediately to a veterinarian.

Are there things people should do (but don't always do) to maintain the good health of their pets?

My highest two recommendations for maintaining the health of your pet:

1. Avoid obesity and keep them at a lean weight. This recommendation applies to all types of pets, including dogs, cats, pet birds, and backyard chickens... essentially any animal. The percentage of overweight pets is increasing. We know that obesity or carrying too much weight can have a negative impact on many health factors, including joint disease and arthritis. Overweight cats and dogs are more prone to developing diabetes and fatty liver. Overweight pets also have a more difficult time with anesthesia, and they are less able to compensate for bronchitis, asthma, or heart disease. Dogs that are lean in body weight live longer than dogs that are overweight.

2. Get regular checkups with your vet even if your pet seems entirely healthy. I recommend at least once a year and, as your pet ages, every six months is even better. These regular checkups with your vet will allow them to just check in with how your pet is doing. New treatments or preventative health measures are coming out all the time, and these regular checkups will help your vet tailor a wellness plan for your pet. Their regular exams may also help to detect some weight gain or weight loss, because it can be harder to notice these subtle weight changes if you are looking at your pet every day.

My vet recently suggested putting a flea collar in the bag of our vacuum cleaner, which I thought was a great trick. Any tips or tricks in that vein for dealing with common pet health issues?

Here is one great tip that our technicians often offer to people over the phone. The "quick" in a dog's nail is where the blood vessels and nerves are. When trimming your dog's or cat's nails, it can sometimes be hard to tell where the "quick" is. And if you accidentally cut this region, there will be bleeding from the toenail that can be persistent. There are many commercial products out there that are great to promote clotting and to stop the blood flow, but sometimes you don't have those on hand or have run out. As a backup, you can use a bar of unscented soap or a waxy candle and scrape the nail across it to get some of the waxy soap or candle to stick onto the bleeding nail. The waxiness will help to slow the blood flow to allow it the opportunity to clot. This same method works for birds that are bleeding very mildly from a beak trim.