How to prepare for a pet emergency you hope never happens

August 1 | Guest post by Laura
Little Cat, in one of her sleeping positions, which I dubbed 'furry pile of sticks.'
Two weeks ago, we had a healthy, happy cat. Our nine-year-old Little Cat loved chasing crane flies, looking out the screen door, snuggling with my husband, and snoozing in cozy spots around the house. Her health, we thought, had never been better. Several years ago she had dealt with obesity and food allergies, but after we got her on a special diet she lost the excess weight and was in great health. Such good health, in fact, that I didn't think to take her to the vet for her annual visit. Such good health that I forgot about the heart murmur that was diagnosed several years ago.

And then, she abruptly died.

My husband and I were about to tuck into a night of watching season four of Lost. Little Cat walked over, sat in front of us, and started a rasping heave. Something seemed weird — we knew it wasn't a normal cat barf; we knew we needed to get to a vet, or do CPR or something. We were panicking, and we didn't know what to do.

I sincerely hope that you never find yourself in the situation we ended up in: listening (and watching, and smelling) your pet die of heart failure while you are stuck in traffic on the way to a vet's office. But, the fact is, emergencies happen and it sucks no matter what, but being a little more prepared would have helped us feel slightly less out-of-control. So, go pet your furry buddy, hold her close, and then read some things I wish we had done.

1. Print the contact information and directions to your closest (and second closest) Emergency 24-Hour Vet Clinic, and pin or tape them to the outside of your pet's carrier. I cannot stress this enough. Our cat's "regular" vet is across the city from our current apartment. We never bothered finding a closer vet, because we only took her maybe once a year. We had to scramble around, trying to remember where we saw an Emergency Clinic. We remembered that there was one about 1.5 miles away and had to Google the address and phone number. It was close by, but because of rush hour + draw bridge + construction traffic it took about 20 minutes to get there. An alternative route to a different clinic also would have been helpful.

And, if you can, call when you are on your way to make sure that someone is there to receive you and your fur-kid.

2. Keep a towel or old blanket in the carrier, because your pet might "lose their bowels." We had a soft-sided carrier, and thank goodness it had a towel and old chenille scarf in the bottom because when living creatures are in their last moments, they sometimes are not able to hold in their bodily functions. It will make their last moments a little better if at least there's something absorptive in the bottom of their crate. Also, you don't want your final memories of your cat or dog to be the lingering smell of their final poop on your car seats. You just don't.

3. Have a serious talk with your human partner about heroic measures. Emergency pet care ain't cheap, ya'll. Our sweet kitty was dead on arrival, so we didn't have to pay for anything except cremation, but resuscitation, intubation, and all sorts of other care is expensive. Talk with your partner about what lengths and costs you would go to save a pet's life.

This is particularly important because it is possible that only one of you will be home at the moment that your pet is in crisis. Have this conversation before you need to, when you are able to think rationally about the various options and ramifications for those options. Maybe put it into writing, if you are those kinds of people.

4. Learn Pet CPR. I'm not kidding, pet CPR exists. It probably would not have made a difference in our case, since our cat was most likely dying of cardiac arrest, but if (heaven forbid), your pet is choking or drowning, it could save a life.

Here's a video that shows you how it's done. Obviously, don't practice it on your pet, but if you've got a large stuffed animal around, go to town.

Remember, just like with human people, if you revive an animal friend, you still need to get to the emergency vet immediately.

5. Come to terms with the fact that you will most likely outlive your pet. This one isn't easy, but you have to do it. Even if you don't have an emergency, your pet will most likely pass away sometime in your lifetime. If your pet has a health condition (like, say, a heart murmur that the vet says is "common" and "no big deal"), learn the risks. Know the average life span of your particular breed. Know the warning signs of health decline; take it seriously if your pet's disposition changes suddenly. Don't get all crazy and freak yourself out, but be aware of reality. Feeling proactive and able to comfort your pet in her final days, weeks, or minutes is better for you and your pet.

6. And finally, hug and snuzzle every single day.

  1. Doing my best not to cry at work. It's painful to think about losing an animal friend, I really can't imagine life without our little Remus, but I guess it's something we have to think about. He's only two, but like you said, anything can happen. Thanks for posting the video, I really had no idea.

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  2. Oh. I am so, so sorry for your loss. Pets have always been so very dear to me. I really wish this post would have been up months ago. We went through our own kitty emergency which fortunately ended up okay, but we still had to take some really unpleasant stuff into consideration and think thoughts that you just have to when you're in the middle of a crisis. Your advice is so valuable–thanks for sharing!

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  3. Oh sweetheart, I'm so sorry! I just aggressively snuggled my kitty in tribute (and he promptly bit me, then flopped up over my shoulder to relax). Our baby man is only a year, but we're saving up to get a blood panel done to help predict possible issues and to present a baseline in the future. Good advice making sure we know the 24-hour emergency vet. There are vet clinics all over our neighborhood (and our friend is a vet), but I'm not positive which ones are definitively 24-hour. Thanks for the advice. So, so sorry for the events that precipitated it. I hope a sweet new kitty finds you when you're ready. xo

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  4. I took a pet first aid and CPR class through my local red cross office. They have real pet dummies to train on. I thought it was a valuable experience and it came with a great reference guide.

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    • Just as a *the more you know* moment.. the American Red Cross does provide Pet CPR/First Aid classes, while the Canadian Red Cross does not. Other countries Red Cross' I am not familiar with.

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      • red cross may not…however St John Ambulance in canada DOES offer pet first aid including pet CPR, so check there!

        I cried unabashedly while reading this, I'm so sorry…but thank you for helping me think about some realities, I just looked up my local 24hour pet emergency clinic.

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  5. I am so, so, so very sorry for your loss. This was a great article. Thank you for sharing!

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  6. Its a terrible feeling when you know you can't do anything. We recently (back in April) had to put our 18 year old princess cat down. I had noticed one morning after the hubby had left for work that she had something wrong with her eye, it looked like it was hurt and getting infected. Something had happened overnight, I think she had gotten in a wrong fight with one of the boys. That's when we had to make the decision to either A) put her to sleep, or B) spend loads more money than we had trying to make her better, and watch her suffer through it. We took her into the vet a couple days later when I could get an appointment, and said our goodbyes. I'll never forget the look in her eyes or the meow as the needle went into her body.

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    • I completely understand what you mean. I had to put down my own senior cat, 12 years old, Shadow, after I found her outside unable to move. I've been in another city in college for the past few years, and was shocked that apparently she hadn't had a rabies shot since we first got her. After three days of antibiotics, I had to make the worst decision ever to have her put down. I insisted on being there and petting her, even when the vet tried to convince me to leave, and it was terrible, until I saw the pain in her eyes. She couldn't even meow when the needle went in, she was just too far gone. I found out later she probably had a brain tumor, but I definitely wish I had checked on her more often, made my parents take her to the vet, but for an outside cat who apparently didn't get her shots, she lived a good five years longer than most. That was probably the second hardest death I've ever had to go through, after my grandfather.

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  7. I'm so sorry for your loss, Laura. That's awful. You definitely gave me some food for thought when it comes to our own furball. We keep meaning to take her in to the vet and keep putting it off. We're bad parents. I'm on it!

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  8. We had to put my Kitty down a few weeks ago and it still breaks my heart to think about it. She was old and suffering from kidney failure and dehydration and while the vet said they could get her on an IV for a few days, the chances of a full recovery were very small. I struggled with whether we did the right thing, but whether I did or not, I can't take it back.

    I'm gonna go have another cry now, excuse me…

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    • I don't know how much assurance it will offer you, but my aunts had two cats who went through kidney failure, and they reached the same decision as you. They were both very sad, afraid and upset to even consider euthanasia, but they came to peace with the situation. I hope you will someday be able to, too.

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      • I had a cat in kidney failure who I had had since she was a very little kitten. It was very sudden renal lymphoma incident and we chose to put her down even though she was only five. We had an option of chemo that would cost four grand and maybe extend her life four months. Three years and one month later I know I made the best choice for her.

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        • Our cat Joyce went into kidney failure last Fall. She was an old girl. Once it became apparent that she was going downhill, we took her to the vet, who told us that we could do a kind of "kitty dialysis" with an IV for awhile that might have extended her life a little. The vet was very upfront with us, though, about the fact that this would be a traumatic thing for Joyce. Cats aren't like people, they can't understand that painful medical things are sometimes for their own good. We chose to put her down instead. We still miss her, she was a good cat, but we know we did the right thing. This has been a bad couple of years for cats for us, we've lost three in two years, but all were suffering with health problems and even though we were sad to lose them, we chose not to prolong their lives anymore if there was going to be no quality of life for them. I'm sure you did the right thing, and it gets easier as time passes.

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    • My first cat, Melly, died of kidney failure too. He went to sleep one night after a *very* lazy day (for obvious reasons afterwards) and didn't wake up in the morning. Dad works from home and had been the object of affection during that last day. Even though Dad had always been a bit apathetic about the cat, he found him and was a bit teary about the whole thing.

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  9. I'm trying to deal with number 5. We have two cats who are one year apart in age. We've had them since they were babies, so I still think of them as babies. I realized the other day that they are middle aged, and how quickly the first half of their life went and how quickly the next half may go. I don't want to think about losing them. Also, I'm very sorry for your loss. My heart hurts for your Little Cat. (hugs)

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  10. I'm very sorry for the loss of your cat. It's always so hard to lose such a loved companion. I am sure you gave her as much love and car as humanly (and animaly) possible. You were lucky to have each other.

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  11. I have a younger kitty, but an older Beagle with a heart murmur caused from a bout with heartworm (before I adopted her). I'm an animal control officer, so I know how important it is to know the phone numbers for more than one vet, AND the number for the closest 24 hour clinic. Putting the number on the carrier is a great idea. I have people who call us in the middle of the night, in a panic because their animal is sick or hurt and they have no idea what to do. Be prepared! I also suggest that if your animal is still young, get pet insurance with at least emergency coverage. Vet bills get expensive quick, and it will be awful trying to decide how much you're willing to pay to save your life.

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    • I enthusiastically second the pet insurance. I got Trupanion insurance for my two-year-old cat a year ago after some expensive vet care. Two weeks ago she got mysteriously very ill: lethargic, not eating or drinking, eventually vomiting. She was sick for a week, with multiple vet visits culminating in exploratory surgery. They never found the cause but she got better and we are so relieved. I'm also relieved that of the $1850 in vet costs, Trupanion should be reimbursing me for $1575.

      Because my cat was only two, my policy is $28/month. I got a policy with no deductible, because you always have to pay the exam fee anyway. 90% of everything else is covered (except routine care like vaccinations).

      So sorry this would not have helped Little Cat. My heart goes out to you, Laura.

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  12. Pet emergencies are so hard (as are the non-emergency goodbyes). My dude's ferret went into renal failure while we were moving his stuff into our house. It was awful and even thought he got to a clinic he still had to deal with a lot of stuff. We were lucky that a good friend was able to take him and help him cope while I stayed behind to guard our stuff and deal with everything on that end. But those decisions are hard.

    Pet insurance is also something we've considered. It seems expensive but we've had cats who needed their teeth cleaned or removed or various other things and that adds up really quickly.

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  13. I am so sorry for your loss. You aren't alone, we just had to put our 16-year-old dog to sleep. Thank you so much for this article, I will bookmark (and hopefully never have to look at) it for future furbabies.

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  14. I have always had pets and pet emergencies have come up more than once for me and my pets. It is such a difficult and heart breaking decision to put a pet to sleep.
    I had a cat that survived a very traumatic dog attack. I decided to have the surgery to patch him back together and he was sent home to me with 50/50 odds of surviving and a very big vet bill.
    I had to put my bed on the floor so that he didn't rip his stitches jumping on to the bed. He was so badly bruised that the vet feared the tissues on his abdomen may die. He and I made it through all of that, the vet was very surprised since he was 14 at the time. He was never quite the same cat afterward and a year later an internal incision opened up he ended up with a massive infection. At that point I made the heart breaking decision to have him put to sleep. Since then I have come to the conclusion that I would not put another pet through something that traumatic. If I had it to do over I would not have put him through the surgery and recovery only to have one more year and then loose him to such an awful infection.
    I currently have a cat with a heart condition, he has been on medication since he was two and at ten he has already lived beyond what the vet predicted. I know that when the time comes for Sam to go, I will not go to great lengths to try to save him. He has had a great life with my husband and I and as much as we love him we will let him go with as much kindness and ease as possible. In the mean time he takes his meds like a trooper twice a day and he has the run of our house and our hearts.

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  15. Bless your heart, honey, I'm so sorry. Thanks for taking something sad and using it as a way to spread vital information to others, though.

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  16. I'm so sorry for your loss.

    I'm so glad you wrote this. We almost lost one of our dogs, thanks to a bizarre collar-stuck-in-other-dogs- mouth-and-twisted, and we weren't prepared. Thankfully he made it, but now we have CPR instructions/ER vet info on our fridge.

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    • We actually lost our dog due to the same bizarre twisted collar stuck in another dog's mouth thing. Such a freak accident. Perhaps if we had known Pet CPR he would have made it.

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  17. so very sorry you had to go through this. we went through the exact same scenario (with no prior health concerns) a couple years ago, right in front of our toddler, skipped the pet carrier and lost him on the frantic drive over to the stone way clinic (we live in seattle, too) and you are correct, pet CPR didn't help.

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  18. I am so very sorry for your loss. It's hard to lose a friend, but when it comes suddenly and unexpected, it's even harder. I am a veterinary technician and I have seen cases like yours, and it breaks my heart each time. The unexpected illness, the emergency, the pet who arrived a few minutes too late. All horrible situations that I wish no pet owner had to go through.
    Thank you for sharing your story, and for opening owners' eyes to the fact that emergencies can and do happen. Sometimes, they are completely out of your control and no matter how prepared you are, you may still lose them at no fault of your own. Having annual check ups with your vet can also shed light on underlying problems that may go unnoticed otherwise. Most importantly, being prepared for an emergency will help save those vital seconds that could make a difference. Thank you again for your story, my thoughts are with you and your sweet kitty.

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  19. i am sorry to hear about the loss of your kitty.

    this is something that pops into my head every once in while when i think about how old my cat is getting. my family adopted her at a couple weeks old, and she now lives with my husband and i. i have literally lived with her most of my life. she will be turning 18 later this month, and while she is still doing incredibly well (her breed tends to have a really long life span) i realize that she will not live forever and at some point there will possibly be an emergency that i am currently not prepared in any way to deal with. after finishing this comment, i am going to research an emergency clinic, and move out pet carrier from the basement into the house. so i just want to tell you thank you so much. your experience, as painful as it is, has given you motivation to write this article, and possibly save the lives of many other pets. big hugs to you.

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  20. this is incredibly heartbreaking. My cat looks exactly like the one in the picture which makes this hit home so much more. This definitely made me more aware of being prepared for animal emergencies.
    Thank you <3

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  21. I'm so sorry for the loss of your kitty. We just recently lost our 9 year old cat Shumba to lymphoma and know how hard it is. I have a couple things to add from our experience. Know your animal's status on diseases like feline leukemia and FIV (Feline immunodeficiency virus). I guess our guy had never been tested and he turned out to be FIV positive which explained why he had lymphoma (FIV can cause various complications like cancer). If we had known his status we might have been more prepared for what was coming.

    I also highly recommend having the animal put to sleep in your own home if there is an organization that will do that in your area. We used Compassionate Care:
    http://www.drlorigibson.com/
    and they were very kind to us and our cat, we were in charge of how fast or slow the process was, our kitty got to slip away peacefully on his own bed, and they made all the arrangements afterwards for us so that we could stay home. They are available 24/7 and can come for emergencies.

    My last piece of advice is to take lots of pictures of your animal before they are sick or gone. I took tons of pictures on my cell phone over the years only to have them erased them when I got a new cell phone. I didn't think anything of it at the time, and thought I had lots of time to take new pictures. Don't delete photos of your pets, don't think it's silly to keep cell phone photos if you switch phones. I lost years of photos with my furry guy and I regret that so much. Take pictures, video, sound recordings, paw prints, anything that you can hold onto after they're gone.

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  22. Two more recommendations:

    1. Have a copy of your pet's medical history (especially if they have any chronic conditions, dietary restrictions or allergies) and most recent vaccination info. If you have to visit a new clinic in an emergency, it helps to bring as much info about your fur-baby as possible.

    2. If you can, save up to create an emergency fund, it can make these situations less stressful from a financial perspective. When my cat began having chronic urinary tract problems, we saved a good chunk of change in case he ever needed emergency intervention. It turned out that he eventually did, and I was so relieved to be able to make his care decisions based on what would help him most, rather than on what the balance in my checking account could handle.

    Bonus: Pay attention and be aware of your pet's eating, drinking, peeing, pooping habits, and their regular weight & temperature. If you are familiar with what's "normal" you're more likely to catch "abnormal" earlier, and get to the vet before it's an emergency situation. And never be afraid to stand up to whoever answers the phone and say "this is serious, we need to be seen today".

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    • See my comment above about pet insurance. Depending on the age of your pet, it might make more sense to buy insurance than put aside money every month.

      Totally agree about knowing what is normal for your pet. This helped us catch our cat's illness right away. She wasn't talking to us and greeting us like usual!

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  23. So sorry for your loss
    Thank you for sharing this with us all
    I actually googled for our local emergency vets last night and have them all saved just incase

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  24. This is such a great summary of some really hard stuff that I never ever wanted to think about, but then had a very similar situation occur. My middle aged, totally healthy little dog went into heart failure one evening and I couldn't logically work through a lot of the answers, I had always told myself she'd live FOREVER because she was like a child to me. She lived another three days, I swung between three vets because I had never got organised enough…one tried to convince me she could live another few years on medication, and told me the side effects were rare. One day on it and she was going through all of them, she could hardly breathe. I was so grateful that my Dad talked me through the hard decision to have her euthanised. I still wish I acted faster on that, but I couldn't make myself make the call.

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  25. I'm so sorry to hear of your loss! It's a horrible, hollow feeling when you lose a pet. Our gorgeous old lady cat died a few weeks back at 16 years of age of a tumour. She was sick for quite a while but not in any visible pain so we kept her at home and she passed quietly one night. I'm glad we didn't have to do the whole vet thing, but it's also very sad when I think of her dying alone, under a cupboard in our hallway.

    I hope when the time is right you come across the right furbaby that will put a smile back on your face. xxx

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