The Basics of Pet First Aid
When it comes to the health of our pets, we can never be too vigilant. Just like with people, medical problems are unfortunately inevitable, and knowledge, preparation, and prevention are the key to proper care until the pet can see a veterinarian. Now, that being considered, there is one big caveat: providing first aid or emergency treatment to an animal should never substitute professional veterinary care. The guidelines provided in this article can help initiate proper medical care, and even buy time in some emergency situations, until the pet can be seen by a veterinarian. In this article, you will find basic first aid tips for events ranging from minor injuries to emergency resuscitation.
First things first: don’t wait for an emergency to happen to find a veterinarian, as time is of the essence and first-time clients aren’t always as readily seen. Familiarize yourself with your nearby emergency/walk-in vet clinics and if your pet doesn’t already have one, initiate a patient-client relationship with a routine veterinarian.
Tools to have in your pocket:
Research and Education
Cut a few minutes out from your TikTok session and research your pet’s species. What’s normal versus abnormal for them? What are common medical issues that species tends to encounter? What medical maintenance is required for that species? What basic husbandry is required and what should you keep an eye out for as their owner? Of course, Google doesn’t replace a veterinarian, but knowing some of this information can help you catch medical issues quicker than if you were uninformed.
First Aid Kits
First aid kits are generally low cost, very accessible, and can be an excellent resource to have if you’re familiar with where the kit is at and what’s inside of it. While first aid kits designed specifically for pets are available, traditional first-aid kits can work just as well.
Emergency Contact Numbers
Save the contact information for your pet’s routine veterinarian, your closest emergency veterinarian, animal poison control, and your local police department so they are readily available in the event of an emergency.
Your Pet’s Basic Information
This may sound silly, but in a moment of panic, it may be hard to remember all of your pet’s information. When you call the veterinarian (or an emergency clinic that may not know your pet) it’ll save precious time to have your animal’s information at the ready. The clinic will be better prepared to take care of your pet if you can provide your pet’s name, species, breed, age, sex, reproductive status (spayed, neutered, intact), any known medical issues and current medications.
The Big “NO’s”
Do not give your animal any medications, for any reason, that are not prescribed to it. Even if they are from another pet of the same species and of similar weight, it is not safe nor legal. This also includes over-the-counter medications, as doing so is extremely dangerous. Many over-the-counter medications that are safe for people are fatal for animals.
While the internet can be a wonderful resource, not everything on it is true or scientifically validated. Avoid online DIY tips or home remedies for your pet’s medical issues. Besides posing the risk of more harm for your pet, it can also impede the treatment that the veterinarian can provide.
So, what may require first aid or warrant an emergency for your pet?
When it comes to controlling active bleeding, think two words: time and pressure. Cleaning, treating and bandaging a wound are all secondary to getting bleeding to cease. If available, use a thick gauze pad or a folded washcloth (or other linen) to apply strong pressure to the wound. The goal of controlling bleeding is getting the blood to clot. This will take minutes, not seconds, so resist from lifting the pressure every few moments and instead hold steady pressure for 3-5 minutes before checking to see if the bleeding has stopped. Once the bleeding has stopped, the animal should still see a veterinarian as soon as possible, as open wounds may require suturing, antibiotics, or surgical repair while it is still fresh.
If blood is coming from an orifice (nose, mouth, ears, rectum, etc.), there is not much that can be done prior to transporting the animal to the vet. Bleeding from orifices could be from numerous medical issues, ranging from minor to life-threatening. If a dog bit its own tongue while playing fetch, the need for medical intervention is not equivalent to the dog bleeding from its mouth after being hit by a car. In cases involving severe trauma, the best thing that can be done for the pet is keeping it warm and calm while transporting it to the veterinarian. For tips regarding severe bleeding, see below under “Life Threatening Emergencies”.
Immediately flush with large volumes of cool water and apply cold compresses during transport to the veterinarian, if possible.
When it comes to heatstroke, prevention is your first mechanism of defense. NEVER leave your pet in a car on (even mildly) warm days. Similarly, never confine your pet to direct sunlight without shade, or a poorly ventilated area during hot temperatures. If the animal appears to be suffering from heatstroke, it should be transported to a veterinarian immediately. If the animal cannot be immediately transported, use cool water from a hose and run it over the animal’s body (particularly the core) or drape wet towels around the animal until it can be seen by a veterinarian. When using the towel method, be mindful to keep re-wetting it with cold water and avoid covering the pet’s face.
It’s a good rule of thumb that any substance that harmful to people is also harmful to animals. While the first products that come to mind may be pesticides, cleaning chemicals, and antifreeze, there are also many everyday “human” food and household items that can be just as harmful.
Prevention is key when it comes to poisoning and toxicity. Think of pets like children; if it’s not meant for the pet, try to keep it out of the animal’s reach. If you don’t know where to start, there are many accessible lists of substances, foods, plants, and other household items that you may get form your veterinarian or find online. One of which is the “Household Hazard” publication provided by the AVMA. Just remember, the internet is not always full of accurate information, so try to stick to veterinary publications and avoid home-remedies without consulting a veterinarian first.
If your pet comes in to contact with or ingests a poisonous substance, first read the label on the substance. Follow the instructions on the label as if the pet is a person. For instance, if the substance label advises to rinse with water, rinse with water. Then call the hotlines for animal poison control or pet poison, as well as an emergency veterinarian. The poison control resources may involve an additional fee, apart from the veterinary costs. Even if your animal appears to be fine, if you know it may have ingested or come into contact with a harmful substance, play it safe and call a veterinarian.
Keep the animal safe from hitting any objects. Do not try to restrain the animal and do not go anywhere near its mouth. Whether this is the pet’s first seizure or a recurrent event, try to remember to note the time as soon as you notice the seizure. Note the time again when symptoms cease, as this information will be very helpful for your veterinarian. During transport to the veterinarian, try to keep the animal warm.
Suspected Fractures and Breaks
Do your best to keep the animal calm while preventing it from moving the wounded area. Use a flat surface (such as a board) as a stretcher and attempt to keep at least the affected area flat on the surface to avoid further injury. A blanket can also be used as a stretcher, padding, or sling, as long as the blanket is used in a manner that it doesn’t put pressure on the animal’s airway or injury.
Do not attempt to splint or stabilize the wound, as this poses a risk of inflicting more harm than good.
Remember your “ABC’s”: Airway, Breathing, and Circulation
If blood is rapidly dripping, steadily flowing, or squirting from a wound on a limb, apply a tourniquet (as this is an emergency situation, homemade tourniquets such as rubber bands, tightly tied linens, cords, or gauze will suffice). The tourniquet should be placed above the closest joint proximal to the wound. For example, if the wound is below the knee but above the tarsus, tie the tourniquet above the knee. If the wound is below the elbow but above the carpus, tie the tourniquet above the elbow. The tourniquet should be loosened every 15 minutes for approximately 20 seconds to prevent damage to the limb. Once the tourniquet is applied, note the time and immediately transport to the veterinarian.
If severe bleeding is coming from the abdomen, make a “belly wrap”. This can be done using an ace wrap, lots of gauze, or even a towel and duct tape. The wrap needs to be tight around the abdomen, as the goal is to apply pressure to cease the bleeding. If organs, viscera, or essentially if anything from the inside of the body is no longer on the inside, use saline or the cleanest water available to moisten the exposed tissues before applying the wrap. Though controlling the bleeding is top priority, the tissues should not dry out!
Again, this is an emergency, and veterinary intervention is needed immediately!
Choking on an Object
While time is of the essence, it’s imperative to remember the two C’s: calm and caution. When in respiratory distress, panic will only worsen the animal’s ability to breathe. Despite it being difficult, do your best to keep everyone involved, including the pet, calm as possible. Lastly, use caution, as an animal in distress is more likely to bite, even if they’re inherently friendly.
If you can see the foreign object and think you can remove it, very quickly and carefully use tweezers or long pliers to grip the object and pull it straight out. Do not delay or attempt this more than once before immediately transporting the animal to the vet. It is imperative that the object is not pushed further down.
If the animal collapses, lay it on its side and use the palm of your hand to firmly strike the animal’s ribcage up to 4 times. Repeat the process until the object dislodges or until you make it to the veterinarian.
Although it’s easier said than done, staying calm is germane to resuscitation. If your pet is unconscious and may not be breathing, take a couple seconds to watch the animal’s chest rise and fall. If it is not breathing, quickly open the pet’s mouth and extend the tongue to see if there is a foreign object lodged in the throat (if so, follow directions outlined above in the choking section).
If there is no foreign object, secure the airway (lay the animal on its back and position the head so the airway is as straight as possible) and initiate positive-pressure rescue breathing. Position yourself near the animal’s head, but where you can also visualize the animal’s chest. Hold the pet’s mouth closed with your hands as you give breaths through your mouth into the animal’s nose. Only give breaths forceful enough to see expansion of the chest. Give one wholesome rescue breath every 5 seconds until you are either relieved by the veterinarian or until the animal resumes spontaneous breathing.
No Breathing and No Heartbeat
Secure the airway (see above) and initiate positive-pressure rescue breathing. Do not perform rescue breathing and chest compressions at the same time. Rescue breaths may be given intermittently between chest compressions, or by another person that is not performing the compressions. Compressions must briefly pause when rescue breaths are given. After giving the animal a wholesome rescue breath, begin the following:
Dogs: Lay the dog on its left side, and begin compressions at the lower aspect of the ribcage (near the elbow). The force behind the compressions is dependent on the size of the dog. For a medium-sized dog, press approximately one inch in depth. Larger dogs will require more force, and small dogs will require less, so this is arbitrary. The rate of compressions should be approximately 80-120 per minute.
Cats and other smaller pets: if possible, use one hand (in a “C” shape) to cradle the pet’s chest. With your thumb on one side of the chest and your remaining fingers on the other, initiate compressions by squeezing. The rate of compressions should be approximately 100-150 per minute.
Have someone call an emergency veterinary hospital immediately, or if you are by yourself, call while performing compressions. Respiratory and cardiac arrest are a grave emergency with limited chances of survival.
Additional signs of medical emergencies that warrant timely veterinary attention:
Open-mouth breathing (not panting), especially in non-canine animals
Signs of GDV (“Bloat”): distended abdomen, frothing at the mouth, non-productive gagging, pacing
Large volumes of vomiting, diarrhea or any other means of fluid loss (especially in small or neonate animals)
Fever, lethargy, acute loss of appetite, generally acting out of character
Vaginal discharge from intact female animals
Jaundice (yellow gums, eyes, ears, etc.)
If the animal appears normal but has experienced recent trauma such as being hit by a car or fighting with another animal
Hypothermia or extended periods of time without eating, particularly in neonate animals
Lastly, no one knows your pet better than you. If your pet is experiencing something that you perceive as a possible emergency (even if its not described in this article), contact a veterinarian as soon as possible. Being vigilant with your pet’s health is a service to them, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.