Pet First-aid Guide: How to Deal with Emergencies
There are many emergencies that can arise at home involving our pets, and it’s very important that we are fully prepared to act quickly and effectively. Having the proper knowledge and skills to react appropriately in these situations can also help to alleviate much of the panic and stress pet parents can experience in a crisis.
Here are some of the most important first-aid skills pet parents should be familiar with so they can act quickly before heading to their veterinarian:
Many pet parents have witnessed a pet limping or vocalizing in pain after jumping off an elevated spot or running in the backyard. It is important to keep in mind that even the gentlest pets can react badly when in pain or discomfort.
If you suspect your pet has injured a body part, specifically a leg, be extremely careful when manipulating their body and/or their injured limbs on your own. Consider muzzling your pet or using an Elizabethan collar (e-collar) to help prevent bites if you need to transport your pet to a veterinarian.
There are several reasons your pet may be limping, so it is best to contact your veterinarian for further advice. These injuries include soft tissue injuries such as muscle strains, ligament tears and tendon/nerve damage. If you suspect a fracture and your pet needs transport to the veterinary hospital, please consider the pain your pet is in before attempting to transport and use caution (basket muzzle or e-collar) as your pet may bite.
Wounds and Bleeding
Common causes of these injuries include encounters with other animals and accidents that happen during rough play. Caution should also be taken when attending to wounds, as attempting to provide care on an animal may lead them to bite.
For wounds that appear contaminated (with substances like gravel or mud), it is advised to clean the wound with antiseptic solution or even plain water that can help remove unwanted bacteria and debris. Only do this when it is safe to do so (your pet has an e-collar or basket muzzle on) and your pet is not struggling.
While waiting to see what veterinarian is available by phone, it is ok and advised to continue to lavage the contaminated superficial wound with water. The more debris that can be safely removed is going to help the healing process by removing micro-nidus for bacteria to grow. Apply pressure with clean gauze or a cloth to stop the bleeding, then gently clean the wound. For uncontrolled bleeding, hold pressure for a minimum of 3 minutes, then check for clotting. If bleeding is severe, apply gauze with firm and consistent pressure until you reach a veterinarian. 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 prior to transport to the veterinary hospital.
Antiseptic solutions can be purchased at a veterinary office or pharmacy. Look for either povidone iodine or chlorhexidine diacetate as the active ingredient. Do not use alcohol or hydrogen peroxide on wounds, as those products damage tissue.
Fractured nails are another common injury that can result in bleeding because of the vessel that runs through the nail. Use styptic powder or a styptic pencil, corn starch, baking flour or even a clean bar of soap to stop the bleeding and contact your veterinarian with any concerns.
Bleeding from the nose, mouth or rectum can indicate internal bleeding and requires immediate medical attention.
Ingestion of Harmful Items
Dogs and cats are known for ingesting inappropriate items that can cause serious illness. These include common foods such as chocolate, grapes, raisins and chewing gum (containing xylitol), and plants such as daffodils, tulips and lilies.
Other concerning household items that can cause harmful or even life-threatening complications include prescription medications, rat poison, paint thinner or even bleach. Small toys, game pieces, strings and clothing (e.g. socks, scarves and hats) are frequently ingested, too.
In the event that your pet has ingested a potentially harmful item, immediately consult your veterinarian and/or the animal poison control hotline for guidance on how to proceed. Important information to have on hand prior to making your call include the species of your pet (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, along with having the physical product label and quantity ingested.
If your animal has ingested a foreign body (e.g. toy or clothing), you will need to schedule a veterinary visit.
All pet parents should have a pet first-aid kit. You can buy a pre-made kit or create your own. Here are some recommended items to include in your kit:
- Emergency veterinary clinic phone number.
- Animal Poison Control Center: 888-4ANI-HELP (888-426-4435) or Pet Poison Hotline: 855-764-7661
- Hydrogen peroxide to help induce vomiting only if recommended by your veterinarian.
- Towels, gauze, clean cloth or white tape, vet wrap (bandage that sticks to itself but not to skin). Additional materials to help with bleeding or wrapping wounds.
- Digital thermometer to evaluate for any elevation or drop in temperature that could be life-threatening (e.g. in heat stroke or hypothermia). The thermometer should be used rectally to ensure accuracy. The normal range for a dog’s temperature is between 100- and 102.5-degrees Fahrenheit.
- Leash, basket muzzle or Elizabethan collar. This will be useful if the pet is in pain and you are attempting to protect yourself from harm or if the animal is wandering in unsafe conditions and needs to be leashed for transport.
- Stretcher. This can be made of cloth, a blanket, floor mat or even a door if no other materials are available. A stretcher can be utilized for transporting an injured pet and to prevent further damage to any fractured bones.
- Syringe or dropper (even small turkey baster). This can come in handy for administration certain medications, hydrogen peroxide to help induce vomiting and even for flushing wounds.
- Wound cleanser. An antiseptic cleanser (chlorhexidine-based) is recommended. Avoid hydrogen peroxide and alcohol because these can be corrosive to sensitive tissue.
- Antihistamines. In the event of a vaccine reaction or allergy flare-up, antihistamines are a good addition to any emergency kit. Discuss with your veterinarian an appropriate dosage based on your dog’s weight and consider having antihistamines such as Benadryl or Zyrtec on hand at home.
- Ice pack to help lessen swelling following injuries or to cool down an overheated animal.
- Non-latex disposable gloves to protect yourself from bodily fluids, including vomit, diarrhea and blood.
- Petroleum jelly to lubricate the thermometer
- 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.
Being prepared and having the appropriate first-aid knowledge can help save your pet in times of need. First-aid care at home does not replace veterinary care 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 a free first-aid app for mobile devices that can help you guide you through emergencies.