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Pet Emergencies and First Aid

Pets are inquisitive and active creatures that can get involved in many types of accidents around the house or when out and about.  As a pet owner, you might hope that emergency situations never occur but it’s important to be prepared just in case.

Even though most emergencies will require veterinary attention, before that, those that are around will need to know how to stabilise the cat or dog, relieve its pain and transport it to safely to get medical help.

It’s worth any pet owner preparing a Pet First Aid Kit and keeping it in the home.  Another should be kept in the caravan, boat or car if the pet travels with the family.

In all emergencies, it is important to assess the immediate safety of yourself as well as the pet and to remove any opportunities for further injury.  If the animal is on a road, get it off the road immediately to prevent any further danger and of course, never put yourself at risk in the process of helping the animal.  You will be no use to the animal if you end up injured as well.

Dogs in pain or under severe stress will require restraining and possibly muzzling.  If a lead is available, slide this gently over the neck or use a rope with a slip knot in the same way.  A make-shift muzzle can be made with a long piece of rope, gauze bandage or panty hose.  Make a loop with the material tying a loose knot at the top.  Slip this over the animals jaw and draw it tight.  Bring the ends behind the ears and tie them firmly into a bow.  This does need to be firm to ensure that the animal can’t paw it off.

Small dogs or cats can be restrained using a blanket or towel over their head.  Place your hands firmly around their neck and once the animal is restrained, wrap the towel around the neck.  If possible, try to have the nose and the eyes visible though some animals relax more if their eyes remain covered.  Cats should always be transported in a box, basket or carry bag ensuring that they have plenty of ventilation.

Move the pet to the side of the road, even if this means dragging him before any treatment occurs.  If the animal is unconscious, check that it is breathing by watching the rise and fall of its chest or feeling for air from the nose.  Holding a tissue in front of the nose may make this easier to see.  Ensure that the airway is clear.  If the animal is unconscious but not breathing perform nose-to-mouth resuscitation or CPR.

Nose-to-mouth resuscitation is administered by first pulling the tongue forward so the tip is just through the teeth and closing the mouth.  Place your hands around the closed mouth sealing it as best you can.  Extend the neck to make a straight line from the nose to the tail and breathe into the animal’s nose.  Small dogs or cats need smaller breaths than large dogs.  After five breaths, re-assess the animal by feeling for a heartbeat and breathing.  If the animal still has a heartbeat but is not breathing, continue with resuscitation at 12 breaths a minute for small dogs and cats and 20 breaths for large dogs.  If the animal doesn’t have a heartbeat, it is possible for a trained person to administer cardiac massage.

Better Pets and Gardens recommends that pet owners purchase a Pet First Aid book or complete a first aid course. These will give comprehensive instructions for resuscitation, cardiac massage and other emergency procedures.

If the animal is breathing but still unconscious, lay it on its side with the head and neck slightly extended.  Fold a blanket or towels and place it under the shoulder but not the neck so that the chest is above the head.  This prevents fluids from the mouth going into the lungs.  Keep the pet warm with blankets and transport it as soon as possible to the veterinarian.

Wounds can be incisions, punctures or abrasions but the way to deal with them is similar to that of humans.  For injuries to limbs, apply pressure with your fingers to the skin either side of the wound whilst applying sterile gauze over the top followed by a large pad of cotton wool.  Apply a firm bandage to hold this on but if the bleeding continues add another layer of cotton wool without removing the first layer.  Transport the animal to the vet immediately using a blanket as a stretcher, keeping them as still and warm as possible.

For chest wounds, do not remove any protruding objects and apply a light dressing only without using pressure.  Grazes and abrasions can be dealt with by trimming the fur around the area, cleaning with disinfectant or saline and apply a dressing making sure that it won’t stick to the wound.   To reduce the pain, it is better to wash a cut by gently pouring or syringing the saline over the wound rather than touching it with a cloth and a cut on the bottom of a foot is best washed by putting the foot in a container of warm saline and gently moving the foot around.

Of course, sterile gauze and bandages are not always available when we most need them but in an emergency, any thick piece of absorbent cloth pressed firmly over a wound will help to reduce blood loss.  The main thing is not to remove it once it is applied as this may remove the clot that is forming and cause more bleeding.

If you know what is normal for your pet then you will quickly be able to recognise when your pet is presenting abnormal signs.

In animals, signs of shock include weakness, pale gums, rapid and shallow breathing, cold extremities and possibly convulsions and can arise from accidents, infection or serious illness.  If there is any bleeding, control this first and lay the animal in a comfortable position on a blanket.  Keep the animal warm and quiet and continue to calm them by talking gently and stroking them softly.  Do not give the animal any food or water and contact the vet immediately for advice on how to transport the pet to the surgery.

In the case of poisoning, call the vet or poison information centre immediately preferably knowing the product that the pet may have ingested.  The most common culprits are garden chemicals, rat and snail bait, chocolate, paint and medications but the method of dealing with each one is different. Obvious signs of poisoning include vomiting, twitching, tiredness, difficulty breathing and convulsions.  It is vital to keep the pet quiet and warm and only act on the vet’s instructions as this will differ depending on the substance that was swallowed.

Choking occurs when objects block the animal’s windpipe making it impossible for them to breath.  Symptoms include pawing at the mouth, respiratory distress, ‘blue’ tongue and gums and choking sounds.

To remove an item from a choking dog’s windpipe, if it is conscious, open the mouth by grasping the upper jaw with one hand and the lower jaw with the other, tilting the head back slightly.  Pull the tongue to the side and remove the object if possible.  If this isn’t possible, stand behind the dog, put your arms under their belly just in front of the rear limbs and lift their hind legs high off the ground like a wheelbarrow.  Gently shake to see if the object will fall out.  This procedure can be repeated up to 4 times.

If the foreign object cannot be dislodged or it is dangerous for you to attempt removing it, contact the vet for advice immediately.

Cats should be restrained in a towel first.  Their mouth can be opened by gently pulling the head upwards and slightly back by placing the thumb and finger on either side of the jaw and the palm across the head.  Use the other hand to lower the bottom jaw and remove the object.

Convulsions or ‘fits’ can be quite shocking for a pet owner to witness and the reason for these can be varied including poisoning, illness, infections and epilepsy.  A convulsion will sometimes start when the animal wakes up suddenly seeming restless or upset.  It then shows signs of drooling, champing jaws, staring eyes, urination and defecation and may collapse on its side.  After a few minutes the animal will appear dazed, anxious and exhausted and eventually return to a normal but tired state.

Whilst the animal is fitting it is important to stay calm.  Do not touch or try to restrain the pet as it will not benefit the animal and may put you in danger.  Remove any items from the area which may injure the animal and keep the environment quiet and darkened until the pet begins to relax.  Stay in the room until the fit is over and never try to move or transport the pet whilst it is fitting.  Once the fit is over, contact the vet for advice and take the pet in to be examined immediately.

Heat stroke can occur from exercising in the heat of the day as well as pets being left in parked cars or areas which are far too hot.  Signs of heat stroke are vomiting or drooling, being very hot to touch, rapid breathing or panting, distress, loss of coordination and collapse.

Remove the animal from the hot environment and run cold water over the back of their head.  Place cold packs or wet towels between the back legs, on the belly and in the arm pits.  Transport the pet to the veterinarian immediately continuing to apply cool wet towels to the back of the neck.  It is no longer recommended to immerse a pet fully in a cold bath since this extreme change in temperature may cause them to become quite sick.

Once the pet is comfortable again offer cool water but only in small amounts.  Too much water taken in quickly may cause vomiting.

In the case of limbs, initial treatment is to apply a pressure immobilisation bandage.  This is done using a crepe or conforming bandage (or panty hose if a bandage is not available) over the bitten area and around the limb.  Apply it firmly but not so tight that it stops the blood flow.  Bandage down to the paw and then up as far as possible on the limb.  A splint can be applied using a rolled up newspaper or piece of wood with a second bandage.  Do not remove the bandages, keep the animal as quiet as possible and transport him to the vet immediately.

Although knowing what caused the bite or sting is helpful to the veterinarian, never put yourself at risk to try to kill or locate it.

Bee stings are rarely lethal but a pet may have an allergic reaction.  Most bee stings in animals are around the mouth and face and are first noticed by quite a lot of swelling in that area.  If possible, remove the sting by scraping it sideways with your fingernail or credit card.  Apply a cold compress to reduce swelling and seek veterinary advice.

A bite from a red back spider may not be life threatening for a large dog but will be a major threat for a small dog or cat.  The animal may appear distressed and begin vomiting.  They may display muscle weakness and perhaps even lapse into a coma.  Apply a cold compress to the bite and seek veterinary advice immediately.

At the very least, a first aid kit should contain the following items:

Keep the items in a plastic box which can also double to collect water for cooling, drinking or cleaning.

Disclaimer: This fact sheet has been written as a guide only and Better Pets and Gardens will not be held responsible for problems that may arise from following these guidelines. If you are unsure about the severity of your pet’s condition, please contact your local vet to obtain further assistance and advice.

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