Pet first aid knowledge is important. There are many pet emergencies and in those moments you need to be fully prepared to act calmly, quickly, and effectively. Proper knowledge and skills in these situations will help to alleviate much of the panic and stress pet owners often experience. Buy a first aid kit, or use a toolbox for all your supplies and information. Keep a record of the address and phone number of your veterinarian and emergency animal clinic. Have a copy of your pet's medical record (including medications and vaccination history) handy. The Animal Poison Control Center phone number is (888) 426-4435.
Pet first aid care at home does not replace consulting with your veterinarian, but learning how to respond to health emergencies will allow you to be calmer and more effective in unexpected situations, while preventing further injury or harm to your pet.
The American Red Cross offers pet first aid courses, and also a free first aid app for your mobile device that can help guide you through emergencies.
Make a Muzzle
Even the gentlest pets can react badly when in pain or discomfort. Before you begin first aid, make sure to muzzle your pet for his safety and yours. You can muzzle with an ace bandage, cloth belt, nylon stocking, necktie, or leash. Wrap carefully over the nose, crisscrossing under the mouth, and then tie around the head behind the ears, being careful not to make it too tight or too loose. If your pet is vomiting, do NOT use a muzzle!
Transporting Injured Pet to Veterinarian
Always support the neck and spine when transporting an injured pet. Large pets should be supported on a rigid surface like a wooden plank, ironing board, or door that can be used for a stretcher. Gently tie or tape the pet on the rigid surface so the pet thrash around or fall off. Small pets can be supported by holding securely using a towel. Cover your pet with a blanket for warmth, unless suffering from the heat.
Call your veterinarian and have pen and paper close by so you can write down any information given. Always phone before taking your pet to let them know you are on the way.
Drive carefully when transporting your pet - you don't want to cause an accident.
Types of Injuries Requiring First Aid (You Must Call Your Veterinarian)
Many pet owners have experienced a pet limping or vocalizing in pain after jumping off an elevated spot or running in the backyard. If you suspect your pet has injured a body part, specifically a leg, be careful when manipulating its body on your own.
Carefully examine the injured area feeling for areas of obvious pain, heat, or swelling. Often soft tissue injuries such as muscle strains, ligament tears, or tendon/nerve damage can result in limping or acute pain.
If you suspect a fracture, your pet will need to be taken to the veterinary hospital. Wrap the injury carefully with bandage material, gauze, cast padding, or elastic wrap to keep it stabilized. You want to wrap it firmly, but not overly tight because this will restrict blood flow to that region of the body. Do not attempt if the animal is fighting you and attempting to bite because of pain.
Symptoms: Pain, inability to use a limb, or limb at an odd angle. Muzzle the pet and look for bleeding. If you can control bleeding without causing more injury, then do so. Watch for signs of shock.
If a limb is broken, wrap the leg in cotton padding, then wrap it with a magazine, rolled newspaper, towel, or 2 sticks. The splint should extend from 1 joint above the fracture and 1 joint below. Secure with tape. Make sure the wrap does not constrict blood flow.
DO NOT TRY TO SET THE FRACTURE by pulling or tugging on the limb. Splint only when necessary and when you are confident of not causing greater injury. If the spine, ribs, hip, etc. appears injured or broken, gently place the animal on the stretcher and immobilize it if possible.
If your pet can't walk a door, board, blanket, or floor mat can be used as a stretcher to transport injured or weak animals. Transport the pet to the veterinarian immediately, supporting the injured part as best you can.
Wounds and Bleeding
Caution should also be taken when attending to wounds. Some of the most common wounds that result in bleeding are caused by encounters with other animals, or accidentally through rough play. Bleeding from the nose, mouth, or rectum could be signs of internal bleeding and will need immediate medical attention.
Cleaning the wound with an antiseptic solution or even plain water can help remove unwanted bacteria. Use gauze or cloth to stop the bleeding by applying pressure and then gently clean the wound or flush with a syringe once bleeding has stopped. If the bleeding is moderate, hold pressure for a minimum of 3 minutes, then check for clotting.
If bleeding is severe you can apply gauze or an elastic band tightly to the wounded area, then gently loosen the wrapping every 10-15 minutes to allow for appropriate blood flow to the area. If the wound or laceration is deep do not attempt to clean out or manipulate the tissue into the body cavity in case there are sensitive blood vessels that might be disrupted. Instead, clean around the edge of the wound and wrap the area before transport to the veterinary hospital.
Antiseptic solutions can be purchased at a veterinary office or at a local pharmacy. Do not use isopropyl alcohol or hydrogen peroxide on deep wounds, because they will actually damage the tissue.
Fractured nails are another common injury that can result in bleeding because of the vessel that runs through the nail. To stop the bleeding you can use styptic powder or a styptic pencil, corn starch, baking flour, or even a clean bar of soap.
Swallowed Harmful Items
Dogs and cats are known for ingesting inappropriate items that can cause serious illness. This includes common foods, such as chocolate, grapes, raisins, chewing gum, and plants such as daffodils, tulips, and lilies. Other concerning household items that can cause harmful or even life-threatening effects include prescription medications, rat poison, paint thinner, or even bleach.
In houses with small children certain toys, game pieces, or clothing (socks, scarves, hats, string) are frequently ingested also.
If your pet has ingested a potentially harmful item, immediately consult with your veterinarian or the animal poison control hotline to ask how you should proceed. Important information you may want to have on hand before making your phone call includes the species (dog/cat), breed (golden retriever, collie, etc.), age, sex, weight, symptoms the animal is experiencing, and the name or description of the substance ingested.
Additionally, having a timeline of when the item was ingested is extremely helpful in pursuing treatment options. If your animal has ingested a foreign body (toy or clothing) then you will want to schedule an immediate veterinary visit. This object may need to be removed through the use of an endoscope or through surgical intervention. Your veterinarian can help to identify an obstruction by using x-rays and ultrasound.
Choking is another medical emergency that is commonly reported at home due to the curious nature of many dogs and cats. It is not uncommon for a pet to have signs of choking from eating bones, sticks, balls, toys, large pieces of food, wood, etc.
Common signs of choking include difficulty breathing, excessive pawing at the mouth, coughing or gagging sounds, and discoloration of the lips or tongue (often blue). Ensure that these are the signs of choking and not of other medical conditions, such as vomiting.
It is important to rule out other causes of choking that are not related to inappropriate ingestion, such as serve allergic reactions, constriction of the airway secondary to tight collars, neck injuries, or tracheal collapse.
If the object is simply stuck in the mouth but is not obstructing the airway, then you may be able to remove it safely avoiding further injury to your pet or to yourself (be aware of sharp teeth!). The proper technique for removing an object from the mouth or entrance of the trachea is to use a hand to open the upper jaw and a hand on the lower jaw either behind the sharp canine teeth or by guiding the lips over the top of the tooth.
Carefully reach in to remove the object if visible avoiding any teeth or use a spoon/tweezers to dislodge the object from the mouth. Be careful not to force the object further down the throat.
If are unable to see the object, or can't dislodge it with your hand or spoon then you may need to perform the Heimlich maneuver. Place your arms around your pet's stomach and join your hands together. Make a fist and place the other hand securely around the fist. Your hands should be in the area just behind the rib cage. Exert pressure inward and upward to create enough pressure to dislodge the foreign object.
Another technique is to use the palm of your hand to strike the region of space in-between the shoulder blades 3-4 times to push air out of the lungs and help dislodge the unwanted object. If you are successful in alleviating your pet's choking schedule a veterinary visit to check for any damage in the body - specifically the mouth, throat, or lungs.
Evaluating your pet for evidence of cardiac arrest involves clinical signs such as pale gums, absent pulses, lack of arousal, and unconsciousness. The best pulse to feel for is the femoral pulse, which lies on the inside of your dog or cat's thighs, extending from the hip down to the knee. It is recommended to feel for this pulse, and check the normal color of your pet's gums on a day when they are healthy so you can know what is normal before an emergency situation.
CPR can help to preserve brain function until adequate blood circulation and breathing can be restored. Check to see if the pet is breathing and check for a heartbeat.
What to Do When Your Pet Needs First Aid
Check for Pulse Before CPR
Hold your middle finger and index finger on the pulse point. Count how many beats or pulses you can measure during a 10 second period. Multiply that by 6 to get beats per minute. The normal resting rate for dogs is 10-30 breaths per minute. Observe the ribcage as it rises and falls during a 60 second period. Do not count panting (shallow breath).
- On ribs right behind his left or right elbow
- Inside the hind leg where the leg meets the rest of the body
- The underside of either front paw, slightly above where the middle paw pad ends
- Back of either of the dog's hind legs, just below the ankle
If you do not see your pet's chest moving, and cannot find a heartbeat, begin CPR with chest compressions. Alternate the chest compressions with rescue breaths (artificial respiration - blow air into the mouth). Continue CPR until you reach a veterinary hospital.
Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)
Determine if your pet is breathing. A collapsed animal that is unconscious may still be breathing, and if still breathing, CPR is not required. So it's imperative that you first determine whether CPR is necessary before beginning. To determine if the dog is breathing, watch for a subtle rise and fall of the chest.
A dog normally takes between 20-30 breaths a minute, which means its chest will move every 2-3 seconds. If you can't see the chest moving, place your cheek close to the pet's nose to feel for airflow against your skin. If his chest does not move and you can't feel air movement, your pet is not breathing.
CPR is used when an animal is not breathing, and the heart has stopped beating. If possible, have someone call your veterinarian while you perform CPR.
The normal temperature of a dog and cat is between 100°F and 102.5°F. Use a rectal thermometer or pediatric digital thermometer. Lubricate the tip with petroleum jelly. Keep your pet in a standing position and hold the tail up. Carefully insert the tip into the rectum and leave it in for the required time. Remove and read.
Remove Anything Blocking Airway
An obstruction at the back of the throat can block the pet's air supply and interfere with resuscitation. If you discover any blockages, remove them before starting CPR, including any vomit, blood, mucus, or foreign material. If the dog has a heartbeat, concentrate on breathing for your pet.
Position for Artificial Respiration
Pull the dog's tongue forward. Align the head with the back, and tilt it back a little to help open the airway. Place your mouth over the airway. If it's a small dog, place your mouth over the dog's nose and mouth. If it's a large dog, place your mouth over the dog's nostrils.
Hold 1 hand under the lower jaw to close it. Place the thumb of the same hand on top of the nose the hold the mouth shut to prevent air from escaping through the mouth. Administer artificial respiration. Blow firmly enough into the dog's snout to lift the chest wall. If the chest rises easily as is likely in a small dog), stop blowing once it has gently lifted. If you continue blowing, you may damage the dog's lungs.
Then release your lips to allow the air to escape. Aim for 20-30 breaths a minute, or a single breath every 2-3 seconds.
CPR (Chest Compressions)
The heart pumps oxygenated blood to the organs, so if you're giving artificial respiration but no heartbeat, the oxygen can't get where it's needed and you need to provide chest compressions as well as artificial respiration. The goal is to perform chest compressions and artificial respiration in a pattern of 1 artificial breath for 10-12 chest compressions. Lay your palms over the heart and press down gently but firmly use enough pressure to compress the chest to 1/3 or 1/2 of its depth. The compression is a quick, rapid movement: compress-release, compress-release, repeat 10-12 times about every 5 seconds.
- Lay your pet on a flat surface on its right side.
- Give 1 artificial respiration breath and then repeat the cycle.
- Perform abdominal compressions if the dog is a very large breed. A large or giant breed may benefit from abdominal compressions, which can help return blood to the heart, but these should not be done at the expense of cardiac compression.
To give a dog abdominal compressions, gently squash or compress the front part of the belly, where large organs such as the spleen and liver are located. You can also add an "abdominal squeeze," which can assist in the re-circulation of blood to the heart, by slipping your left hand under the dog's abdomen and using your right hand to "squeeze" the abdomen between your 2 hands. Repeat this movement once every 2 minutes or so, but if you have your hands full with chest compressions and artificial respiration, leave this element out.
Continue the heart massage compressions and the rescue breathing until you can hear a heartbeat and feel regular breathing. Once your pet is breathing and his heart is beating, call your veterinarian immediately. Unfortunately, even in the hands of well-trained veterinary health professionals, the overall chance for success with resuscitation is low. In an emergency, however, it may give your pet his only chance.
First Aid Kit
Being prepared and having the appropriate first aid knowledge can help to save your pet in times of need. You can buy a pre-made first-aid kit for pets or obtain products to make your own kit. A toolbox can be used to hold your supplies. Here are some recommended items to include in your kit:
- Emergency veterinary clinic phone number
- Animal Poison Control Center: 888-426-4435 or Pet Poison Hotline: 855-764-7661
- Hydrogen peroxide, Milk of Magnesia, or activated charcoal to absorb poison, or help to induce vomiting if recommended by your veterinarian, or a poison control representative
- Gauze, splint, and cast padding to wrap wounds or stabilize a fractured or injured limb
- Towels, clean cloth or white tape, Vet wrap (bandage that sticks to itself but not to the skin), clean materials to help with bleeding, wrapping wounds, or protecting certain body injuries
- Digital thermometer to evaluate for any elevation or drop in temperature that could be life-threatening (heatstroke or hypothermia) - inserted rectally to ensure accuracy
- Leash or muzzle if the pet is in pain to protect yourself from harm, or if the animal is wandering in unsafe conditions and needs to be leashed for transport
- Stretcher made of cloth material, blanket, floor mat, or door to prevent more damage to fractured bones (secure with a leash or rope)
- Anti-septic cleaner to clean out a wound (avoid overuse of hydrogen peroxide - can damage sensitive tissue)
- Syringe without needle, eyedropper, or small turkey baster for oral treatments
- Antihistamines such as Benadryl or Zyrtec for a vaccine reaction, bee sting, or allergy flare-up (ask your veterinarian for the right dose amount)
- Ice pack for swelling following injuries, or cool down an overheated animal (check skin periodicaly)
- Non-latex disposable gloves - no contact with bodily fluids including vomit, urine, diarrhea, or blood
- Small flashlight
- Petroleum jelly to lubricate the thermometer that is gently inserted into the rectum
- Styptic powder or pencil to stop bleeding from broken toenails.
- Bandage scissors, and nail clippers to trim bandage materials and toenails
- Triple antibiotic ointment for minor scratches or superficial skin wounds