The 5 Key Basics of Pet First Aid

Pet in Need of First Aid

It is important to be prepared in the event of a pet health emergency. Most of the time our loved ones are happy and safe, but such issues can arise suddenly. A little know-how can go a long way in helping to reduce the risk that their condition might become much worse. It could also mean the difference between life and death for a dog, cat or other pet.

Here are the key first aid basics that anyone can master:

  1. Keep calm. This is especially important when it comes to administering first aid to a pet. The calmer you are, the easier it will be for you to think and act clearly. In addition, since our loved ones often feed off of our distress, it could make things more difficult to resolve. Once you have your emotions in check, it is time to act.

  2. Understand what is going on. Among the questions you will want to answer (or ask others who have witnessed the situation) are:

    • How is your pet acting? Is she suddenly weak? Has she been feeling “off” for a few days and now things are getting worse?

    • Is she throwing up or afflicted with diarrhea, or is there vomit or abnormally soft or watery stools in the vicinity?

    • Is she coughing or choking?

    • Could she have been exposed to some sort of toxin or poison?

    Having a general idea about what has been happening can be quite helpful, enabling you to know where things stand before seeing a pet healthcare professional. Try to take in as many details as you can, as they may help your veterinarian to provide the best possible care in the shortest amount of time.

  3. Remember your ABCs. By assessing on three key areas at the outset, it will help you determine how quickly your pet needs to receive veterinary attention.

    1. Airway

      Always assess your pet’s airway first. Carefully, take a look inside her mouth. Does it appear clear? If so, then move on to next step and assess her Breathing.

      Is your pet coughing or gasping for air? Can you see something blocking her airway? If it is an object such as a toy or rawhide chew, you may be able to remove it quickly and help save your pet’s life. Remember to be careful, of course, so you don’t get bitten. You may be able to use a set of pliers from the tool box to grab something stuck in the back of her mouth without getting hurt in the process.

      If you think that her airway is obstructed and you can’t see or reach the cause of the problem safely, quickly check Breathing and Circulation and then head to your veterinarian.

    2. Breathing

      Is she breathing? If she is, is it fast or slow? Does it seem difficult or labored? The magic number to remember is 30–if your cat or dog is breathing at a rate faster than 30 breaths per minute, this could be a sign of distress.

      Panting in dogs is not always a sign of distress, but it is never normal in cats and certain other animals. If she is panting, seek veterinary attention as soon as possible.

    3. Circulation

      When you assess her circulation, you are trying to determine two things: how fast her heart is beating and the color of her mucous membrane, as follows:

      • Heart rate. To check her heart rate, or pulse, place your index and middle finger between the ribs at the level of the left elbow. In dogs and cats, the heart lies nearer the left side, so it may be easier to take a reading if your pet is standing or laying with that side up.While heart rates can vary by age, breed and species, a good rule of thumb for a dog is to seek veterinary attention if her heart rate is less than 60 beats per minute. For a cat, the same applies if her pulse is less than 110 beats per minute. Even when there are no obvious signs of trouble, it is a good idea to regularly keep tabs on your pet’s resting heart rate. If it is outside the normal range, contact a healthcare professional.

      • Mucous membrane color. Your pet’s mucous membrane–her gum and tongue–color can provide some insight about how well her circulatory system is functioning. If it is brick red, purple, yellow, white or blue, you should seek veterinary attention immediately. In general, a normal, healthy tongue and gums should be pink. Bear in mind, however, that some breeds of dogs have dark pigment on their tongues, so you will need to focus on their gums instead.

  4. Body temperature. In certain situations, your pet can develop a fever or her body temperature will be too low. The only way to know for sure is to measure her temperature rectally. Under the circumstances, you should invest in a good quality rectal thermometer that can provide you with relatively fast readings–some models can do so in under 10 seconds–and some petroleum jelly.

    To take your dog’s or cat’s temperature, begin by placing a dab of the petroleum jelly on the tip of the thermometer, and then gently insert it about an inch into your pet’s anus. Always take care to avoid getting bitten–in fact, it is probably a good idea to have a friend, family member or other helper around to hold your pet still when you are taking a reading.

    For dogs and cats, the normal rectal temperature range is 99.9 degrees farenheit (37.7 degrees centigrade) to 102.5 degrees farenheit (39.1 degrees centigrade). If the readings you get are outside this range, you should head over to your veterinarian as soon as possible.

    Bear in mind that certain animals can suffer from heat stress or heat stroke even if the temperature in the surrounding environment isn’t particulary high.Brachycephalic, or “smushy-faced,” breeds, for instance, are especially prone to heat stress. The abnormal structure of their airways can make it more difficult for them to cool themselves down than is the case with other dogs.

  5. Knowledge is power. Although it is undoubtedly important to be knowledgeable about the most common situations where first aid may be required, differences in age, breed and species mean that some animals are more prone to certain conditions and afflictions than others.

    If you have an eight-week old Chihuahua puppy, for example, you should learn about first aid techniques for dealing with toy breed hypoglycemia. If you own a Great Dane, you should know more about the ins and outs of Gastric Dilatation Volvulus, or dog bloat. If your little one is a Pug, you should become more knowledgable about heat stroke.

    Otherwise, If your pet suffers from a chronic health condition, such as heart failure or diabetes, you will likely want to speak to your veterinarian about the things that can happen that will require you to offer first aid assistance at home. By being better informed about what can and will go wrong, you will be prepared to act whenever necessary.

    It is impossible to know about every possible scenario, of course. You could boost your overall understanding about pet first aid by reading relevant books and articles and taking courses on the subject offered by local veterinary hospitals, the Red Cross or local community colleges. You will also find links to websites with relevant information on Keep Pet Safe’s “Other Pet-Related Resources” page.

    Regardless, if you have any doubts at all about your pet’s condition or are concerned that her health is seriously at risk, seek assistance from a healthcare professional right away.

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