First aid for pets
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There are times when a vet isn’t available: an animal is sick or injured, and immediate action is needed. An informed owner can rapidly ease the discomfort and distress of a pet and in rare cases, the right action can be life saving. Examples of life threatening situations where immediate intervention can make the difference between life and death include airway obstruction, bleeding, poisoning, heat stroke and difficulty whelping. And there’s a wide range of situations where first aid can be helpful, if not life saving: road accidents, joint injuries, and eye and ear problems are examples.
You can, of course, just Google first aid measures, but the urgent nature of emergencies means that it’s far better to have the basic information already stored in your brain. First aid courses for pet owners are now widely available, and if you’re a dedicated pet owner, they’re well worth considering. See here for a good example.
First aid Kit
- bandages – self-adhesive “Vetwrap” type (5cm) work well because they don’t stick to fur
- Conforming/open-weave bandages (5cm)Some non-adhesive dressings (5cm x 5cm) to apply directly to wounds
- Sticky tape and an Elastoplast type sticky bandage (5cm)
- Cotton wool
- Gauze swabs
- Curved, blunt ended scissors
- A towel
- A dog lead
- A nylon muzzle
- An Elizabethan collar
Working out when it’s time to go to the vet
It’s tempting, but often not helpful, to simply Google the symptoms displayed by your pet. The problem with doing this is that there are so many possible causes of many symptoms (such as “drinking more water than usual”) that you’ll soon find yourself in a sea of possible diagnoses: more confusing than constructive.
It’s more effective to go straight to a website designed to help you work out what to do : for example, my own vet clinic website has an interactive symptom checker which uses flow-chart style algorithms to help you work out whether or not you need to take your pet to the vet.
You can also consult directly with a vet online, via a video link. Perhaps with improved virtual reality developments in the future, this may become more helpful, but it’s an area of technology in its infancy: as a vet, I find it hard to to see how you can make a full diagnosis without carrying out a physical examination of the animal.
When do pets just need first aid, and when do you go straight to the vet?
Apart from obvious cases like road accidents, bleeding or collapse, it can be difficult to decide whether urgent attention is needed.
You should phone the vet if:
- an animal seems weak, dull or depressed
- an animal is struggling to breathe, or is coughing repeatedly
- an animal vomits repeatedly
- Diarrhoea is less serious, unless bloody, if the animal is very dull, or if it continues for more than a day
- any animal seems to be in severe pain
- an animal is straining but unable to pass urine or faeces
- an animal is not properly conscious, or is having seizure episodes
- a bitch is having difficulty whelping
- a bitch with suckling puppies is trembling, shaking and agitated
Emergencies when urgent first aid is needed
Road accidents are the most likely serious emergency that most owners will encounter
- First ensure the safety of yourself and other humans, as well as the needs of the animal.
- Take care with oncoming traffic: have people standing some distance away, warning people, and get all animals and people off the road as soon as possible.
- Take a short time to calmly assess what’s going on before acting
- Remember that injured animals are frightened and may be in pain, without knowing where the pain is coming from
- They may try to bite anyone who comes close to them so be cautious
- If the animal looks like they may bite, apply a muzzle, or wrap tape around the nose and tie behind the ears, unless the dog has difficulty breathing. You need to be confident to do this: practice with your own dog.
- Small dogs can be restrained by putting a thick towel over their entire body, and wrapping them up
- Never give human medicines to a dog
- When taking the patient to the surgery, it’s best to have someone sitting with the injured animal, in case they try to move around in your car
- Put a firm bandage covering the bleeding area, ideally with a non-stick swab applied the wound beneath the bandage
- If you don’t have proper dressing materials, use a towel or some clothing
- For places you cannot bandage, press a pad (gauze or cotton wool) firmly onto the wound and hold it in place with your hand
- Get to the vet at once
- If you have proper bandaging materials, place a non-adhesive dressing on the wound and cover with swabs
- Then place a layer of cotton wool
- Apply a bandage over this.
- Use adhesive bandage or tape over the bandage layers
- Use minimal sticky bandage directly onto the animals fur: just enough to stop it slipping
- Never leave a bandage on for more than one day
First aid for pets with broken bones
- Deal with serious bleeding but do not apply a splint – a broken leg is painful
- Confine the patient for transport to the vet so that they don’t move around at all
- Place smaller animals in a box or carrier cage.
First aid for dogs that have been poisoned
- Locate any packets or inserts that describe the substance swallowed so that you can pass this detail on to the vet
- If ingestion of plants is suspected, take a photo of the plant so that it can be identified later
- Call your vet immediately to explain what has happened to your dog
First aid for pets with burns
- Run cold water over burnt areas at once, for at least five minutes, then contact the vet.
- Do not apply anything (such as creams or ointments) to the burnt area
First aid for a dog with a swollen abdomen
- If a dog has an enlarged, swollen abdomen that has developed rapidly, this is an urgent life threatening emergency known as a “gastric torsion”
- Large dogs (like Great Danes, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Dobermans) are more prone to this
- Signs include retching, drooling and sometimes vomiting
- Action needs to be taken at once: do not delay before phoning your vet
First aid for dogs choking on an object stuck in their throat
- Try to push the ball out by pushing on the throat/neck from the outside.
- If the dog has collapsed, do a two-person manoeuvre as follows
- One person holds the mouth open, while the other reaches inside to the back of the throat and tries to grab the object.
- If this does not work, lay the pet on the side, push down suddenly and sharply on the abdomen just behind the ribs, with the second person holding the animal’s head and being ready to grab the object if it emerges
First aid for pets with coat contamination
- If a substance such as paint, diesel or tar has got onto the coat or paws, prevent the pet from licking themselves as they may swallow the poison
- Use a plastic Elizabethan collar if you have one.
- If anything other than a small area is affected, call your vet