“About 60% of emergency visits are the result of accidents,” Karen Sable told us at the beginning of our Pet First Aid certification class.
“Being able to administer first aid could mean the difference between a short and long hospital stay, needing further treatment, and even life or death,” she continued.
A few kitties I’ve lived with have been in a big hurry to literally inhale their food, especially dry food; on the occasion they’ve gagged on a piece I’ve realized I have no idea what to do if one of them would actually choke on a piece of food, or on one of the other interesting things they decide to eat. I’ve been lucky they’ve expelled it on their own. In that moment I have vowed to learn how to help them in the case of choking and the myriad other things that might happen in a house full of curious, active cats. Only recently have pet first aid classes been offered by my local shelters.
Earlier this spring Deb Chebatoris of Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation worked with two families who lost young dogs who may have been saved if their families had been able to administer first aid. Coincidentally, she also met Karen Sable through arrangements for her kitty Snowball, and learned that Karen had recently become a pet CPR and first aid instructor, and the two began to plan a series of classes sponsored by Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation.
About our teacher
Karen is the owner of Pet Emergency Training, LLC certified through Pet Tech, Inc., the first international training center dedicated to teaching pet CPR, first aid, and pet care. She is also a trained responder with several national animal rescue/disaster response teams, including American Humane’s Animal Emergency Services Team, United Animal Nation’s Emergency Animal Rescue Service, and Noah’s Wish Disaster Response Team. I’m also a member of the PA/Allegheny County Animal Response Team.
When asked, most participants remarked they’d been considering learning pet first aid for a while and had been looking for an opportunity. The class of 14 animal lovers was about equally mixed between dog and cat owners, and most were long-time pet owners and multiple pet owners, each a little bit uneasy at the thought of their pet being in an accident that required such care, but ready to learn what to do in the case it would be necessary.
“This class qualifies you to perform first aid on your pet, but not necessarily another’s pet,” explained Karen. “You need to get permission to treat people, and you also need to get permission for pets.”
“Of course,” she went on, “you would always want to help in any way you could, but be aware of the legal ramifications of what you decide to do.”
The animal may have been injured or it may be exhibiting vague symptoms of physical distress. Its condition and what it needs may not be at all clear, but the goal in performing Pet First Aid is to assess and stabilize the animal, not necessarily to treat its injuries or symptoms without further veterinary care.
First, be prepared with information
In addition to techniques, pet first aid also includes preparation and prior knowledge, especially in your own home where you have the most control. Karen used the acronym PETAID:
Protect pets, people and yourself; safety first.
Environmental precautions should be observed—check your house for chemicals, plants, heat or cold, insects, snakes and other creatures, plus holiday dangers such as decorations, lights or candy.
Traffic is the number one cause of injury and death in pre-senior animals, especially unneutered males; never trust your animal’s prey drive. This includes accidents inside your vehicle where your pet should always be restrained.
Keep up to date with the Agencies and associations in your area to whom you can turn for help in an emergency, such as veterinarians, emergency clinics, shelters and rescue groups, and have the information handy.
Compare Injury and wellness by conducting a health assessment to determine the baseline statistics for your pet’s species and your pet in particular, such as heart rate, breathing, temperature. In addition, get to know as much as possible about the species and even breed of your pet so that you have some information should symptoms arise.
Know Diseases that can be transmitted to humans from animals, such as rabies, ringworm, Lyme disease and pinkeye, for your own safety before handling an animal in an unknown health condition.
Make an initial assessment
There are only three situations you will encounter with a pet that needs first aid. This is your first assessment and determines what your course of action for the animal.
1. The animal has a heartbeat and is breathing.
- NEED: first aid, which is what you’ll do 99% of the time.
2. The animal has a heartbeat, but is not breathing.
- NEED: rescue breathing, mouth to mouth or mouth to snout
3. The animal has no heartbeat and is not breathing.
- NEED: CPR
Time to get our “hands on”
After this introduction, Karen invited us to choose a stuffed toy model of cat or dog and a pack of basic safety equipment and get ready to learn what to do when we encounter various situations, and how to handle the animal. No live models in this class—Karen explained that real animals may not react well to being a demonstration model.
When you encounter an animal that may need first aid, protect your own safety first—don’t run out into traffic or leap into a river or touch live electrical wires in your haste to get to the animal—and don’t touch the animal without trying to get its attention by other means first. Yell, stomp your foot, or stand where it can see you and wave your arms, judging its reaction when you do. Once you’ve determined the animal is safe to handle, Karen demonstrated how do a quick check of its vital signs, checking for a pulse, for breathing and for circulation, from there to determine if the animal needs first aid, rescue breathing or CPR.
If the animal is biting or scratching or being in any way violent, you will need to restrain it for its own safety as well as yours. We learned the basics of restraining and muzzling, done unless the animal is vomiting, having seizures or breathing difficulty, because any animal in pain may bite you, even your own, or even if it may initially appear unconscious. Use caution and the least amount of force, remembering that in this situation, “a 10-pound cat is equal to a 50-pound dog, or even a 75-pound dog” in how it will resist a muzzle or any other treatment. In addition to looking at various muzzles, we learned to improvise one from a long strip of felt.
We also learned the techniques for rescue breathing and CPR with cats and dogs, and even with various breeds of dogs, and while we laughed when Karen held up the calico cat model to demonstrate the “taco” style of CPR, most of us remarked that we weren’t so sure it would be amusing in the case we needed to use it.
Karen then reviewed what to do in cases where the animal is apparently choking, determining if it is simply having breathing difficulty from an allergic reaction or heart condition, for example, or if the choking is caused by an object, and if so how to assess what it is, where it is, and the best way to remove it.
Bleeding and shock and bleeding protocols were next as we moved through levels of severity and complication in injury, and our next task was to learn a “bandage roll” on our demonstration pets in order to control bleeding. In all cases, but especially here, “It’s important not to try to be a hero,” Karen said. “After an injury or emergency situation, animals often deteriorate rapidly and first aid is intended to maintain the condition they were in when you found them, or to bring them back to consciousness, then get them to assistance.”
Part of first aid after an physical trauma is assessing and stabilizing fractures and limb injuries without worsening the injury or causing more pain, and while minimizing contamination and risk of infection.
Poisoning from ingestion or inhalation is difficult to determine because you usually can’t see any injuries and the symptoms don’t always appear until some time after the animal encounters the toxin, so you may have no idea when, or with what, or how the animal became ill. In the case of a suspected poisoning, collect as much information as you can—if the pet has a substance in its mouth or on its body, or if it vomits, collect a sample in a plastic bag, take note of specific symptoms you see that are unusual, then either call a veterinarian or emergency clinic or one of the poison control centers immediately. Don’t induce vomiting unless you are told to.
Snake and insect bites or stings are considered poisoning and are treated as such, and are usually found on the nose and paws. You may remove a stinger if you find one, and apply a baking soda and water pack on the area, but toxins from bites and stings can affect any or all of an animal’s vital signs so keep checking these, even hours afterward.
Injuries from heat and cold are just as serious as physical injuries—simply being outdoors in the sun for too long or walking on ice can cause heat stroke or hypothermia without you or the animal realizing the conditions are that severe. In addition to carefully cooling or warming the animal, any areas of the body affected by burns or frostbite must be treated as well, all done best by a veterinarian.
Animals can have serious burn injuries, not just from flames but from hot things, like hot sidewalks or electrical cords, or from chemicals. Burns put the animal at an extremely high risk of infection and their severity may not be apparent for a day or two after the injury when skin starts sloughing or wounds begin oozing. They may also go into shock from the pain of a burn.
And the final condition we covered was seizures and convulsions, which may be a result of an injury or poisoning, or may be from a medical condition within the animal. In either case, you can’t do much for the animal while it’s seizing, but be very observant and report the effects to a veterinarian especially if it’s the first seizure your animal has exhibited or different from other seizures you’ve seen in the animal.
When to see the veterinarian
There are times when you can stabilize an animal and just observe from there, but unless you are a skilled caregiver you may not recognize a minor or underlying symptom that a veterinarian would, or think to look for other related symptoms when a condition arises. Karen listed these conditions, recommending that the animal see a veterinarian:
- seizuring, especially the first or an unusual one
- arterial bleeding
- respiratory distress
- inability to walk
Your First Aid Kit
An important part of being prepared to give your animal first aid is to have a first aid kit on hand that is specific to animal needs, much as you should have one for yourself and family members, and if you leave home with your animal, pack a traveling kit as well. You can purchase one, but if you put your own together you know what’s in there.
- Photo of you with your pet or pets, plus names, address and contact information
- set of muzzles or long ribbon to improvise a muzzle
- leash and harness
- rolls of gauze
- materials for splints
- small blanket or towel
- automatic hot and cold packs
Think also in terms of emergencies or natural disasters, add:
- copy of medical records
- any medications or materials for treatment, such as needles or an IV line
- food and water, bowls
- litterbox and litter
This last obviously isn’t portable, but keep it handy if you need to make a quick exit for any reason.
Now we are certified
We all received our certificates and wallet cards at the end of the class, along with a packet of information from Pet Tech, LLC. I honestly hope I never need to use the knowledge I gained in this class, but I can say that I feel much more confident that I may actually be able to do something should the situation arise.