First aid tips for common pet emergencies
How you can help your pet in a crisis, and safely transport a sick or injured animal to the vet.
Transporting pets with broken bones
If you know you are dealing with a fracture/broken bone, gently lay your pet on a flat surface such as a board for support and to use as a stretcher during transport (or use a throw rug or blanket as a sling).
Making sure you don’t put pressure on either the injured area or the animal’s chest, try to secure your pet to the stretcher — wrapping a blanket around the animal and the stretcher will usually do the trick.
In cases where you are unable to stem the bleeding, and/or a wound is deep enough for you to see bone or soft tissue, or where you suspect there is any possibility of a broken bone or internal injuries, you should first call the hospital for advice.
There is little you can do at home in the way of first aid for a fracture but if it’s impossible for you to get your pet to a veterinarian promptly you could attempt to set the fracture with a homemade splint but this should always be a last resort unless you have previous experience. A badly-placed splint may cause more harm than good.
Evaluate the extent of blood loss before treating wounds
If your pet has been scratched bitten, or clawed, or has otherwise torn skin and tissue, you first need to stop the bleeding. Apply sterile cold compresses to the wound, several if necessary. Press firmly on the wound and check the rate of bleeding every few minutes. Bleeding from minor wounds should stop fairly quickly.
If bleeding is severe and on the legs, apply a tourniquet (using an elastic band or gauze) between the wound and the body, and apply a bandage and pressure over the wound. Loosen the tourniquet for 20-30 seconds every 15 minutes.
Note: If you cannot stop the bleeding, or the blood is bright red and spurting from the wound it can indicate arterial bleeding. This is always serious. You should call the hospital immediately.
Next, see ‘Clean, Disinfect & Cover’
Coping with ‘fits’
Don’t attempt to restrain an animal suffering a seizure but do keep it away from anything that might hurt it — open fires, hot surfaces, pools, furniture etc.
Time the seizure — they can last from seconds to minutes, usually 2-3 minutes. Once it has stopped, keep your pet warm and quiet and contact the hospital. Do not assume a seizure is a ‘one-off’ event; these incidents almost always indicate wider problems that require investigation.
Internal bleeding requires veterinary attention!
If you see your pet is bleeding from the nose, mouth or rectum, there is blood in their urine, or they are coughing up blood, have pale gums and are weak with a rapid pulse, you should suspect internal bleeding.
In these cases there is nothing you can do at home. Keep the animal as warm and quiet as possible and get it to the hospital or the nearest veterinarian as quickly as you can.
More serious than they look
Beware of this type of wound, caused by deep bites or the penetration of a sharp foreign object such as a stick, a piece of fence wire or other items. Puncture wounds can be deceptive, usually closing up and appearing to heal quickly with minimal bleeding. In many cases, however, infection will set in beneath the surface, requiring opening up and draining. Puncture wounds should always be checked at the hospital.
First aid for chemical and other burns
For a chemical burn caused by caustic solutions, flush the burn immediately with copious quantities of water.
For burns caused by direct heat (flame, hot surfaces etc) immediately apply an ice water compress to the burned area. You can also use packets of frozen vegetables like peas.
Any burn can cause infection and should be promptly checked by a veterinarian.
When your pet goes into shock
Many conditions can cause an animal to go into shock but it usually follows a severe injury or extreme fright. Shock symptoms include a weak pulse, shallow breathing, nervousness and dazed eyes.
Keep the animal restrained, warm and quiet. If your pet is unconscious, keep the head level with the rest of the body, gently place the animal on a flat stretcher and get it to the hospital.
Helping a pet that’s choking
A choking animal will show symptoms including difficulty breathing, constant pawing at the mouth and choking sounds when breathing or coughing. The lips and/or tongue may also have a blue tinge. The most common cause of choking is food or a foreign object stuck in the windpipe.
Approach a choking pet carefully – panic can make it bite.
If the animal can still breathe, keep it calm and get it to the hospital.
Look into the pet’s mouth. If you can clearly see a foreign object, try to gently remove it with tweezers, but be very, very careful you do not push the object further down the throat. The potential for you to make matters worse by poking around in your pet’s mouth and throat is so great that we cannot recommend you attempt it. But, in situations where you are unable to quickly get the animal to the vet it may be the only thing you can do.
One alternative is to try holding the dog upright with its nose pointing to the ground and shaking the animal. It sounds a little drastic but it can work, and it’s less likely to cause problems than using tweezers.
Even if you can clearly see what’s causing the blockage, if the animal is still breathing don’t spend too much time trying to get it out it if it’s not easy to reach — get your pet to the hospital, where we have specialised equipment for these cases.
‘Mouth to mouth’ for pets
If your pet is unconscious and/or has stopped breathing you can attempt to resuscitate them. Try to have someone else call the hospital while you attempt this so we can talk you through the process. If there are enough friends or family available it can be helpful to carry out the procedures below while on your way to the hospital.
Always stay calm and act in a methodical way.
First, check to see if your pet actually is unconscious. Open your pet’s airway by gently grasping the tongue and pulling it forward out of the mouth until it is flat. If the tongue does not stay flat when pulled out of the mouth, i.e., it retracts back into the mouth, it indicates your pet is still conscious. You should always pull out the tongue (gently!) to secure an airway before transporting an unconscious pet to the vet.
Check the animal’s throat to see if there are any foreign objects blocking the airway (see the previous section on Choking).
Perform resuscitation breathing by holding your pet’s mouth closed with your hand and breathing with your mouth directly into its nose until you see the animal’s chest expand (your pet breathes through its nose, not its mouth). Once the chest expands, continue resuscitation breathing once every 4 or 5 seconds.
Unfortunately, if your pet is already unconscious and/or has no pulse, the chances of a successful first aid resuscitation are not high. In an emergency however it may give your pet its only chance. Whatever else you might try to help your pet, your first action should be to call the hospital for advice.