As a board-certified veterinary criticalist at a bustling 24/7 emergency hospital, I’ve seen my fair share of lacerations, heat strokes, broken bones, and many other emergent cases. As a pet owner, you probably already know that your pet can get themselves into all kinds of situations, which is why being prepared to take action when something does occur will be key to getting the best possible outcome.
First and foremost, have a first aid kit available
First aid kits are one of the most essential items you can have. While many pre-made options are available commercially, it’s also very easy to build one yourself – and you likely have many of the items at home already. Here’s what you need.
Be sure to keep your pet’s medical records easily accessible and discuss with your veterinarian ahead of time what the best way is to contact them in an emergency. If they are not readily available, discuss alternative emergency care facilities to utilize as a backup, especially if traveling out of town.
My pet is injured! What should I do?
The first thing you need to do when your pet has sustained an injury is to take a deep breath. You will not be able to properly care for your pet if you are panicking.
Keep in mind pain makes even the most well-behaved animals unpredictable and anxious. Therefore, your goal is to minimize stress as much as possible to prevent injury to yourself or further injury to your pet. Provided your pet is not vomiting, applying a loose muzzle (e.g., with roll gauze or a small towel) will help to protect you and others from a bite. Small dogs or cats should be wrapped in a towel.
Depending on the injury, there are a few immediate actions steps you can take:
- Apply direct pressure with gauze for at least 5 minutes. If gauze is unavailable, you can also use a feminine pad or a light towel/rag.
- Be sure not to disrupt the clotting process by relieving pressure too soon or wiping the area. If the blood clot is dislodged, the bleeding will continue.
- If the bleeding continues, put on a light bandage using gauze and vet wrap to apply continuous pressure on the wound until a veterinarian can address the wound.
- If a bite wound is bleeding, apply direct pressure or a light bandage. Be aware your pet might be amped up from the incident that led to the bite wound, and be gentle.
- Do not attempt to clean or flush wounds at home – doing so can worsen contamination of the wounds.
- ALL bite wounds need to be treated by a veterinarian as they are at high risk for an infection. Veterinary care should be sought as soon as possible.
- Always contact a veterinarian, ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center, or the Pet Poison Hotline for immediate assistance. Do not wait.
- Call an emergency veterinary hospital or veterinary urgent care clinic to let them know you are coming, and head there immediately.
- Fractures are extremely painful, therefore, you should muzzle your pet if you can.
- If a bone is protruding from a leg, cover it with sterile lubricant, gauze or a feminine pad.
- Do not try to splint the leg. Some fractures are not amenable to splinting, and a bad splint can actually do more harm than good.
Stay calm; luckily, seizures are rarely life-threatening, though they can look very scary the first time you experience one.
- Clear the area around your pet to prevent further trauma, and keep your hands away from the mouth.
- Keep other pets and children away until the seizure has resolved.
- If you are able – grab your phone and shoot some video of the episode. Your emergency veterinarian or neurologist will appreciate it.
- Time the seizure; most last 2-3 minutes. If it lasts over 5 minutes, or it was the first time, transport your pet to a veterinarian immediately.
- Regardless of the length of the seizure, be sure to contact your veterinarian as soon as possible if this is the first time a seizure has occurred in your pet.
While a rare occurrence, it’s most common following aspiration of a foreign object (e.g. accidentally inhaled). It’s important to note that choking is different than coughing.
What choking looks like in dogs and cats:
- Difficulty breathing during inhalation.
- Often very quiet.
- Can cause high-pitched whistling noise.
- If your pet is choking, try to keep them calm and transport them to a veterinarian as soon as possible.
- If your pet is unconscious, you can try to sweep your fingers into the back of their mouth to check for a foreign object, being careful not to confuse the object with their larynx.
- Due to the conformation of most dogs and cats, the Heimlich maneuver is rarely successful.
What coughing looks like in dogs and cats:
- Loud, hacking sound.
- Often occurs during or after expiration (breathing out).
- Can inspire (breathe in) normally.
Easily occurs in temperatures over 80˚F, especially with Brachycephalic (short-muzzled) and Northern breeds, like Huskies and Malamutes. Signs of heat stress include heavy panting, exercise intolerance, weakness or wobbly gait, and collapse. If your pet is showing any signs of heat stress:
- Move your pet to a cool, shaded area.
- Place them in front of a fan or a car’s A/C.
- Offer small amounts of cool water.
- Avoid excessively cold temperatures.
- Even if your pet’s temperature is normalized with first-aid measures, heat stress can cause irreversible organ damage to the brain, liver, kidneys, and coagulation system, so be sure to get your pet checked out by a veterinarian as soon as possible.
- Common signs of an allergic reaction are hives, reddening of the skin, and facial swelling.
- Most common allergens are bug bites, bee stings, and chemical contact.
- Benadryl can be helpful in mild allergic reactions, however, you should always consult with a veterinarian to determine appropriate dosing.
- Follow up with your veterinarian or a veterinary urgent care clinic and immediately transport to a veterinarian if facial swelling is severe or causing difficulty breathing.
When to Seek Help
Reading through this, you’ve likely noticed by now that the recommendation is to seek veterinary help with each incident. As mentioned earlier, while there are early intervention first-aid measures you can take, ultimately, your pet’s best chance lies with a veterinarian.
Written By Rachel Halpin, DVM, DACVECC
Criticalist at Care Center and NVA Compassion-First Specialty Advisory Board (SAB) Vice-Chair