Having the right supplies and knowing what to do (and what not to do) in an emergency situation involving your pet, can literally save lives.
In this episode, Dr. J tells us what you can expect to learn at a pet first aid class, we walk through some of the essentials to keep in your kits at home and on the road, and recommend first-aid manuals and great free resources I'll link to in the post below.
April is Pet First Aid Awareness Month, but it's obviously something that we should be aware of and prepared for no matter what time of year it is. Here are some of the things you can do to get yourself ready in case you find yourself in a pet emergency.
Also, please note that first aid is exactly that, and your second step should be to have your pet evaluated by your vet, or an emergency animal hospital.
Find a Pet First Aid Class to Take
In certain situations, the knowledge you take away from a first aid course can make a huge difference. Some of the skills you might take away include:
- The proper order of steps to take in an emergency situation
- Checking your pets vital signs, including their pulse and respiratory rates
- Evaluating capillary refill time
- How to clean and bandage a wound properly
- How to create a temporary muzzle if you don't have access to one (important because no matter how much they love you and are your little cookie pie snugglebutt, when in pain, pets will bite)
- How to transport a pet that's been injured
Generally speaking, a lot of the first aid classes will cover material suitable for cats and dogs. But don't forget, cats are not small dogs, and visa versa, so make sure the class you sign up for will provide the right species-specific information that you need.
While you're there, think about any activity (i.e. hiking, boating, skiing), or breed-specific considerations you may want to get training around. For example, French bulldog, Marshall Jolie-Pitt, being brachycephalic a regular muzzle won't work on his flat face, and due to respiratory difficulties, you have to be very careful when fashioning and using a makeshift muzzle.
And one more thing, you signed up to learn, so DO NOT BE AFRAID TO ASK QUESTIONS!
Check with your veterinarian, a local emergency vet to see if they offer first aid courses or if they have recommendations for local resources, or look to these resources for more information:
Dr. J Recommended Pet First Aid Manuals
- Dog First Aid by The American Red Cross
- The Safe Dog Handbook by Melanie Monteiro (with lots of pictures, which is my speed)
- The First Aid Companion for Dogs & Cats by Amy Shojai
Helpful How-to Videos
Build Your First-Aid Kit
You may not be able to stock your first-aid kit with everything immediately, it can get expensive and flea combs aren't the sexiest thing to spend your paycheck on, but you should try to include these supplies at minimum:
A bottle of saline wound flush (like this wound wash)
- Use: For cleaning (irrigating) wounds
- Alternatives: A bottle of saline eye/contact lens flush or saline nasal spray can also be used for flushing a wound.See the Medications section below for a more detailed description and brand recommendation. You can also ask your vet to sell you a small bottle of either a chlorhexidine diacetate or povidone iodine solution to have on hand for cleaning and disinfecting your cat's wounds. You'll learn more about these items next on the list.
- Caution: Do NOT use Hydrogen Peroxide to clean a wound, as it can actually slow healing.
Blood clotting powder (e.g., ClotIt)
- Use: To quickly and effectively stop bleeding from gashes, bites, and even "quicked" or torn toenails. Not only will this help to keep your car from getting blood-stained on the way to the vet, but it'll also help keep your first-aid bandages from becoming blood soaked and, most importantly, can help prevent serious and dangerous blood loss in the event of major blood vessel damage. ClotIt is truly "magic" and important stuff to have in your cat's first-aid kit!
Wound Disinfectant (e.g., Povidone iodine or Chlorhexidine diacetate )
- Use: You should have a bottle of Chlorhexidine diacetate* and/or Povidone iodine** around your home with pets. You can get the Povidone iodine on Amazon, but should probably ask your vet for the bottle of Chlorhexidine diacetate solution (see * below for the reasons why). To use either of these antiseptic solutions, either use some soaked gauze sponges to gently blot the area, or if you've got a syringe in your pet's first-aid kit, you can also use that to spray the diluted solution onto the area under a bit of pressure (which can further help to dislodge any bacteria or debris that was missed in the previous "wound flushing" step).
- Cautions: You don't want to use either of these at "full strength" though, they both need to be diluted*** for safest use. Chlorhexidine diacetate should be diluted to a 0.05% solution, while the povidine iodine should be diluted to a 1% solution for safe and effective cleaning and disinfecting.
- *Caution about Chlorhexidine: Chlorhexidine is available as both a "scrub" and a "solution," when using it as an antiseptic for your pet's wounds you want to be sure to use the "solution," not the scrub. Chlorhexidine is also available as both the "diacetate" salt and the "gluconate" salt, again, when using it as an antiseptic for your pet's wound care, use the "diacetate" salt and be sure to dilute to no more than a 0.05% solution. Concentrations of Chlorhexidine diacetate over 0.05% will, like hydrogen peroxide, damage skin cells. So it's best to get the Chlorhexidine diacetate solution from your vet to avoid confusion or getting the wrong product.
- **Caution about Povidone iodine: Dilute to a 1% solution. Also note that some people can be allergic to povidone-iodine.
- ***Not sure how to do dilutions? Here's an easy-to-use dilution calculator to help you get it right. And, for safety sake when diluting, always add the chlorhexidine or iodine to the water, and not the other way around. Just in case of splash back, which can injure your eyes!
Cotton balls and cotton-tipped swabs (e.g., Q-tips, or these sturdier and conveniently packaged swabs from Dynarex)
- Use: For cleaning wounds, as well as for gently and more precisely cleaning in and around your cat's eyes, ears, and other sensitive areas.
- Caution: Never stick Q-tips or other cotton-tipped swabs into your cat's eyes or ears without first being shown how to do it safely by your veterinarian. If done incorrectly, you can cause serious damage to your cat's eyes or eardrums!
Non-stick bandage pads (like these Curad ones)
- Use: Non-stick bandage pads are good to put as your first layer when covering and bandaging burns, cuts, and other wounds. While their gauze nature allows them to absorb blood and inflammatory fluid, their non-stick covering prevents them from sticking to and disrupting any clot or scab that has formed during the beginning of the healing process.
- Use: This is the outer layer for bandages to help keep your bandage in place and prevent it from unravelling. Because it sticks to itself, no tape is needed. You must be very careful not to put this layer on too tight, or else you'll interfere with the blood flow to the area under and around the bandage. To prevent applying it too tight, unwrap the amount you need from the roll and then loosely wrap it back around the roll before applying it.
- Alternatives: Duct tape, electrical tape, or Saran Wrap (or another plastic "cling film") can serve the same purpose in a bind. Again, don't apply too tightly.
Eye flush (saline) (like this Ocusoft eye wash)
- Use: To flush your pet's eye(s) in the event of pollen, grass seed, or other object getting stuck in their eye ("ocular foreign body"). See note below re: treating with artificial tears after flushing. Can also play "double duty" for cleaning wounds if you don't have a bottle of wound flush handy.
Benadryl (generic = diphenhydramine) (like these generic 25mg diphenhydramine tablets)
- Use: Diphenhydramine can be useful in bee and wasp stings and other allergic reactions. While diphenhydramine is safe for most pets in these situations, you should check with your veterinarian to ensure that your pet can be given diphenhydramine. See this article for more about using Benadry/diphenhydramine, including a handy calculator to help you determine your pet's dose.
- Cautions: (1) Make sure that the medication you buy only has diphenhydramine as the active ingredient (i.e., don't use a combo cold + flu, or other combination medication). (2) Make sure that you pay attention to the concentration of diphenhydramine in the pills or liquid when calculating the dose you are giving your dog. (3) Make sure that the formulation of diphenhydramine you get for your dog does NOT contain xylitol, a common sweetener that is fine for people but highly toxic to dogs!
- Tip: Pre-calculate your dog's dose (see our Bee Sting article for a Benadryl dosing calculator for dogs) and then write it on the side of the box or bottle (see inset photo). It'll help you remember their dosage and save you a step in a "pinch."
Battery-powered beard trimmer (like this AA battery-powered Wahl trimmer)
- Use: For trimming mats and "sticky stuff" (e.g., gum, glue, sap, etc.) from fur and for trimming fur around wounds.
- Note: Using a beard trimmer for these purposes, rather than a pair of scissors, greatly decreases the chances that you'll inadvertently cut your pet's skin (which can be painful and very bloody). Since this is for a first-aid kit and you won't always be near an electrical outlet when it's needed, we suggest going with a battery-powered trimmer (rather than a corded, or even cordless rechargable option). The Whal trimmer we recommend is perfect for pet first-aid kits. It's battery powered, trims even dense fur, and is made by a reputable company with experience making professional trimmers for groomers and veterinary practices.
Muzzle (Basket-type muzzles, like the Baskerville muzzle, are often the easiest to apply and least distressful for a dog in pain, as they let the dog pant normally. But basket muzzles aren't practical for every dog or every situation, so a cloth muzzle (like this adjustable set) might be best for your dog).
A nylon cat muzzle, like the one linked below, is the easiest to apply and least distressful for a cat in pain.
- Use: To prevent a dog or cat in pain and distress from biting you, or anyone else helping you, while transporting or administering first aid. Pets in distress and pain are more likely to bite — even their owner, and even if they normally wouldn't.
- Use: A reliable light source is imperative for when injuries happen at night, as well as for looking closely in between toes and paw pads, or into your cat's mouth, ears, or nostrils.
- Caution: If you need to look into your pet's eye(s), don't use a bright light such as the Maglites or headlamps. Rather, use a less-bright medical "penlight," such as these LED nurse's penlights from Opoway.
Extra leash (a slip leash is great and easy to pack)
- Use: For helping to restrain your dog (or a found dog) and lead them to safety. Can also be used for a makeshift muzzle, if necessary. Check out this video to see how to make a muzzle out of your dog's leash.
And of course, don't forget lots and lots of treats.
An Incomplete List of What Not to Do in a Pet Emergency (without having consulted your vet first)
Hydrogen Peroxide does a great job of killing bacteria, but it also kills the cells that we count on to help heal the damaged cells. So using it to clean a wound, especially a deep wound, can do more harm than good.
Instead, start by using water. Try to always have a fresh bottle of water with you wherever you go, but especially on hikes, or when you're out for long walks. Not only will it help if your animal gets thirsty, but also for cuts and scrapes. Even though it won't be tonically balanced, it will help flush away debris.
Next, use Povidone iodine or Chlorhexidine diacetate instead, but also see the above cautions to make sure you are purchasing the correct formula, and that you are diluting your Povidone iodine properly.
Do NOT induce vomiting with your pet before speaking to your veterinarian, an animal E.R., or animal poison control
There are certain chemicals or toxins where you can make things significantly worse by making your dog or cat throw up. It can cause additional, or even worse damage on the way back up. So you really have to be careful to not jump into inducing vomiting.
Do NOT try to cool your pet down too quickly in case of heat stroke
If you have a dog overheating, resist the urge to throw them in a pool of ice water because it will actually slow down the cooling process. For best results, you have to cool things off gradually, until they get to around 103.5 (degrees Farenheit), which is about one degree above their average body temperature. If the E.R. is close enough, just rush them there.
Do NOT give your dog or cat human pain medication
It may be difficult to see your animal in pain, but please stay away from human pain relievers, either prescribed or over-the-counter. Our pets' bodies metabolize them differently, and can cause significant, even fatal, problems if administered. So always, always, always, talk to your vet, especially since they will know your animal's history.
Maybe Your Pet Can Return the Favor
If you've got the patience, and your dog (or cat??) has the ambition, you may even be able to train them to perform CPR in case of a human emergency! Check out Poncho the police dog demonstrating CPR on his officer partner.
Completely unrelated, but here is my new favorite creature of the sea (music added so you won't hear me squealing in delight):
Just look at its little happy feet, it makes me want to cry!
Thanks again for reading and listening. Have a story to share with us? We'd love to hear from you!