How to handle a pet emergency

Would you know what to do in an emergency with your dog? If not, you might want to consider taking a first aid or CPR class for companion animals.

When my elderly dog Ally fell over and started hyperventilating one night, I did what most people do in an emergency – panic,” says Yvonne. “The vet’s office is less than ten minutes away, and I got her there immediately, but it still wasn’t soon enough. Ally didn’t make it. I sometimes wonder if she’d still be with me if I’d known how to stabilize her until we got to the vet.”

Living with a dog or cat means you’ll sooner or later have to deal with illness or injury. The most serious incidents, like the cut that won’t stop bleeding or an out-of-the-blue seizure, always seem to happen after the veterinarian’s office is closed for the day. Knowing how to assess an emergency and apply first aid treatment can be a lifesaver – literally.

According to the American Animal Hospital Association, one out of four animals would survive if just one first aid technique was applied prior to getting to an emergency veterinary hospital. Taking a first aid or CPR class can help you be prepared and remain calm during a crisis.

Where to find a class

“Learning about first aid isn’t just for family members,” says Robyn Elman of In Home Pet Services in Bellerose, New York. “It’s important for pet industry professionals like pet sitters, dog walkers and groomers, as well as first responders like police officers and fire fighters, to learn pet first aid and CPR.” Robyn’s students work with life-sized stuffed dogs and cats in a four-hour class as they learn the signs of shock, allergic reactions and heatstroke.

The American Red Cross also offers first aid and CPR classes for companion animals. They use dog and cat manikins to provide hands-on training for CPR. (In a survey, 63% of dog people and 53% of cat people said they would be willing to give CPR to their animal companions.) In class, you’ll also learn what to do if your animal is choking, has eaten something poisonous, or gets frostbite.

American Red Cross classes may be taken at their own offices, but may also be offered through Humane Societies, veterinarians or trainers, or at day care or boarding facilities. Liz Palika of Kindred Spirits Training teaches the Red Cross first aid class at her facility in Vista, California. For real hands-on training, Liz’s two Aussies Bashir and Archer volunteer to be the “injured” victims. They’ve learned to hold up a helping paw as students search for a pulse or try to bandage a foot.

Trying to move or restrain an injured animal can result in a scratched or bitten person and a traumatized dog or cat. Dogma Day Care in Atlanta offers first aid classes that include a lesson on how to properly restrain or muzzle a dog and how to confront an injured and aggressive cat. According to their web site, 60% of animal hospital visits are emergency related. A first aid class can’t replace regular vet visits, but it could save your animal’s life or prevent further injury if he panics after being hurt.

Aging affects dogs and cats in many of the same ways it does people – eyesight gets worse, hearing starts to go, and the stairs are harder to navigate. Denise Fleck of Sunny Dog Ink in Burbank, California not only teaches first aid classes but also a class called Caring for Your Senior Dog and Cat that focuses on non-medical ways to prevent accidents and injuries and make your companion’s life more comfortable. For example, a dog who can no longer hear you call during a late night potty break can be trained to respond to a blinking flashlight.

What else to do

Check your companion nose-to-tail on a regular basis. This will help you notice any changes during an illness or after an accident.

• Pay attention to gum color – if it’s paler than usual, it could indicate internal bleeding or a heart/ lung problem.

• Lumps and bumps can come up quickly and should be examined by your veterinarian with the same speed.

• Timing the length of a seizure can help your vet determine the cause.

Once you establish a baseline of what’s normal for your dog or cat, you’ll be able to focus on what’s different and be able to explain it to your veterinarian upon arrival at the clinic.

Know your vet’s office hours and what to do after hours – is another vet on call or should you go to the emergency hospital? If yes, have the phone number handy and know how to get there. Call ahead so the staff is ready, especially if you’ll need help getting your dog or cat out of the car and into the hospital. This is not the time to go online and ask questions!

Our animal companions depend on us in so many ways. In case of emergency, staying calm and knowing what to do will reassure your dog or cat and may even save his life. A first aid or CPR class could make all the difference.
A first aid/CPR class should teach the following:

•CPR and rescue breathing

•How to check vital signs

•How to control bleeding

•Handling and restraining an injured pet

•How to induce vomiting (and when not to)

•What to do for bite wounds

•Recognizing and treating heatstroke and frostbite

•How to prevent and treat poisoning

•What to do for burns, choking, diarrhea, broken bones, seizures, shock and vomiting.


Sandra Murphy lives in St Louis, Missouri. When she's not writing, she works as a pet sitter.