For those of us with pets, pet first aid may not be a subject that often crosses our minds. But when it does, it is usually due to an all-too-interesting situation, because our animal friends love to get themselves into some of those.
Boiled down to the basics, pet first aid is not that different from human first aid. But there are some big differences to be aware of:
#1: Dogs and cats (most of them, anyway!) have fur.
This makes wound care a bit more difficult. Generally, please don't try to use scissors on your pet's fur; even experienced groomers and vet staff can occasionally have accidents and cut the skin. It is usually fine to do an initial cleaning with warm water and/or hydrogen peroxide (alcohol stings, but is safe to use if tolerated) but leave further clipping and cleaning of a wound to your veterinarian, as soon as you can get to one.
Protecting the wound until it can be further treated makes sense to keep out bugs in the environment and to prevent self-trauma. Especially if there is some bleeding, covering with a temporary bandage or applying firm and steady pressure for at least 1 to 2 minutes, or longer for severe hemorrhage, will help speed clotting. Basic supplies for a bandage can be as simple as paper towels and scotch tape, in a pinch, or sterile gauze held in place by medical adhesive or elastic tape from your (hopefully well-stocked) first aid kit. The major thing to know about home or field-placed bandages is not to overly constrict what you are bandaging, as this can cause far worse complications than the initial injury (constriction leads to loss of blood flow and oxygen, and amputation in the most severe cases). And realize that what you put on will need to be taken off at the vet, so try to avoid the duct tape (but actually, if it is all you have, it gets the job done).
#2: Dogs and cats walk around barefoot, all the time ...
... so foot injuries, penetrating wounds, foreign bodies, infections and torn toenails are much more common for them than in people. Some of these are extremely painful, and your pet may not tolerate your touching anything close to the foot. Small animals instinctively guard their feet unless trained to allow handling for the most part, more so when they are painful. This would indicate you need to get your pet to a vet quickly to have him or her examined under proper physical or chemical restrain (i.e., sedation or anesthesia). This is sometimes not only more comfortable and less stressful for your pet, but may help prevent a lifelong fear of the vet clinic or of having their feet handled in general. (We all know a few dogs who have to have the groomer or veterinary staff trim their toenails because it takes a group effort of professional restrainers or sedation every time.)
#3: Dogs (and some cats) are indiscriminate eaters.
This means that anything, and I mean anything, is game for mouthing. We pull everything from sticks and other plant parts, underwear, knives from the birthday cake, fish hooks, tennis balls, porcupine quills, you name it, from their mouths and further down the GI tract (stomach and intestines).
Drooling, dropping food, or holding the head or neck positioned abnormally can be signs of something lodged in an odd corner of the mouth or throat. Items can migrate to some very interesting locations, which are not always straightforward to find. If the pet has swallowed something that passes into the stomach or somewhere along the intestinal tract, vomiting or pain and general malaise can follow. Inappetance (a decrease in appetite) to full-blown anorexia (refusal to eat anything) is common, as well as eating or drinking and throwing it up, whether after every meal or only some meals, sometimes right afterwards, sometimes hours later, and whether food appears digested or less so. Some will drink water but often not enough to meet hydration requirements, especially if they lose fluids through vomiting or diarrhea.
Edible foods also can make them quite ill (ever have a rough time following an outing to a spicy Indian or Mexican restaurant?). And don't forget food "poisoning" or ingestion of a large enough quantity of disease-causing bacteria that thrive in the environment of the intestines to overwhelm the immune system. Many of these produce toxins, the most severe and luckily not as common ones even causing toxic shutdown of multiple organs and death within 48 hours.
Inedible foods can be life-threatening, depending on the specific item’s potential to cause obstruction or other complications. And just because your pet has not done it before does not mean he or she will not do it for the first time, at any age.
#4: Last but most importantly, dogs and cats can’t tell us when something’s wrong.
It seems too obvious to need stating, but sometimes owners don’t understand why, as vets, we will focus in on a tiny detail of history that the owners give us. Sometimes we are extremely lucky to catch an early sign that something is wrong. If you notice any physical abnormality or sense something unusual in any aspect of your pet's behavior, it's best to trust your intuition and pay attention.
Stocking a Pet First Aid Kit
The American Veterinary Medical Association has a very helpful list for stocking your pet first aid kit. I personally also like to assess what activities your pet typically does, and if you include your pet in travel plans or do specific things like agility, hunting, hiking and camping, you may want to have a smaller or activity-specific version of your first aid kit packed separately. Keeping a car first aid kit for yourself and the family can also include any additional pet first aid kit supplies you might need for on-the-go mishaps. The good news is that stocking a pet first aid kit is very similar to stocking your own, so by preparing for your pet’s medical benefit, you are also helping to be aware of things you might need for you and your family.
Here is the list from the AVMA (further details and lots of other great resources are available here: https://www.avma.org/public/EmergencyCare/Pages/First-Aid-Tips-for-Pet-Owners.aspx):
- Phone numbers for your regular family vet, the local emergency vet (if you are traveling, it is good to research this ahead of time), and the animal poison control hotline phone numbers (animal poison control: 888-4ANI-HELP or 888-426-4435)
- Gauze squares and roll gauze in a variety of sizes
- Nonstick bandages, towels or strips of clean cloth for covering wounds
- Adhesive tape for securing bandages (white medical tape found at any pharmacy, because band-aids don’t work well for dogs or cats ... remember that whole not having hair thing?)
- Hydrogen peroxide (a great first-time cleaning for a wound and helps remove blood really well, but don’t use during the healing process). You may also use this to induce vomiting in dogs (not cats), if you cannot get to the vet, although it is very irritating to your pet’s stomach. Give about 1-2 tablespoons per 10#, but not over 3 tablespoons total in larger dogs. Never induce vomiting if they have ingested something sharp, or a caustic chemical-type toxin (like bleach or acid). Always contact your veterinarian or local poison control center before inducing vomiting or treating an animal for poison.
- Digital thermometer. The most accurate temperature is a rectal temperature, and some pets will allow their owners to take one, although it may take a second person to help gently restrain. You can also take one in the axilla (armpit) but it is 1-2 degrees cooler than the rectal temperature and is less accurate. Normal temperatures vary and are slightly higher in cats, but over 103F is usually suspicious for a fever. My favorite is the Vicks Speed Read with the flexible tip.
- Eye dropper or syringes for administering/measuring medications (smaller sizes). Larger sizes are also good to have around for certain medications and for flushing wounds. Sterile saline is my favorite solution for flushing wounds, but an improvement over tap water is a very dilute iodine or chlorhexidine/Nolvasan solution in water, which are easily found at the pharmacy.
- Muzzle. If a pet has suffered a painful injury, placing a muzzle may be the safest option for all involved, especially if the nature of the injury requires you to physically handle the painful part of the body before you can get to the vet. If your pet is vomiting, please don’t place a muzzle as that could cause him or her to choke or aspirate.
- Leash. You also never know when you might get caught without a leash, so even just a compact braided nylon slip lead can come in handy.
- Stretcher. For a small dog or cat, the bottom of a plastic kennel/crate is adequate (so have a removable top, ideally). For a medium to large dog, a large blanket or dog mattress could be used with a person on each end (or a person on each corner if you need extra heft), but realize this won’t give as much stability as an actual stretcher or a large board, a door, etc.
- Medications. There are a few over-the-counter medications that are safe to use in a variety of emergency situations and unlikely to cause harm even if used unnecessarily. Talk with your veterinarian about which medications would be appropriate for your pet's first aid kit. Please do not give over-the-counter medications in place of taking your pet to a veterinarian promptly for evaluation. Important note: Don’t ever give your pets human pain medications like Tylenol or ibuprofen because they are toxic. Cats and dogs are unable to process these drugs the same way humans do. An example of a safe use of human OTC medication would be to give Benadryl at a dose of 1mg per pound of body weight by mouth up to every 8 hours in the event of a suspected allergic reaction (sudden appearance of hives, facial swelling, sudden severe itchiness and or skin redness, or also following a bee or wasp sting to prevent an allergic reaction from occurring). The Benadryl alone may not control the reaction, however, so it is given to reduce signs as much as possible while coming ASAP to the animal ER.