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Person performs CPR on-Shetland sheepdog

The essentials

  • Make an emergency plan — Unfortunately, you can’t call 911 for pets, so you’ll have to handle crisis situations as best you can until you can transport them to an emergency vet.
  • The chest compression rate is 100 to 120 compressions per minute — If your pet isn’t breathing, give them two artificial respirations between every set of 30 chest compressions. Read the full instructions on CPR for dogs and cats, below.
  • Take your pet to the vet as soon as they’ve been resuscitated, if not before — Even if they appear to be OK, you’ll need to treat the underlying cause of their cardiac arrest.

If your dog’s heart stops beating or it’s struggling to breathe, the following minutes are critical for its survival. In a perfect scenario, you’d be close enough to a veterinary hospital where professionals could perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) with oxygen, but emergencies don’t always happen near a vet’s office.

In this situation, you’ll need to either remove any potential obstructions from your dog or cat’s throat or perform basic CPR until you can get your pet to the hospital for further treatment. The survival rate following cat or dog CPR is usually under 10%, but the sooner you begin, the better your pet’s chances of recovery. Take a breath and try not to focus on worrying about the outcome. With clear, quick thinking, your actions could save your pet’s life.

Before performing CPR on your pet

First, call your vet. If your pet can’t breathe or their heart stops, put the phone on speaker and try to revive your pet while you give your vet the details as best you can.

Some animal hospitals provide ambulance services. If yours doesn’t, begin conducting CPR or, for choking pets, dislodge the foreign object from your pet’s throat until they regain consciousness. You could also have someone else drive you and your pet to the vet clinic while you work on them.

🚨Never attempt CPR on a conscious pet. While CPR is critical for unconscious pets that aren’t breathing, the process can damage a healthy dog or cat. 

What to do if your pet is choking

If your pet appears to be choking, don’t do CPR. Instead, try to remove the lodged object from your pet’s throat. Here are the steps you should take:

  1. Manually remove the foreign object — Ask someone to help you hold your dog’s mouth open while you attempt to dislodge the foreign object. Avoid pushing the object farther down your dog’s throat.
  2. Attempt a dislodging maneuver — If the object is still stuck, try a different dislodging maneuver. Similar to the Heimlich maneuver in humans, wrap your arms around your pet’s back towards their stomach. Holding their back legs, turn your pet upside down in a wheelbarrow position. Make a fist with your thumb facing toward their abdomen, and layer your other hand on top of the fist. Perform 5 thrusts on the abdomen to expel the breath in their lungs. Check their mouth to see if the object is dislodged. This video shows you how to complete the steps.
  3. Try the external extraction technique — For this one, you’ll need to gently lay your pet on its back and squeeze the outside of its throat until the object pops out. You can see a video of this technique here.

If you have a small cat or dog, hold them upside down and shake them. This video shows you how to dislodge objects from pets who are light enough to pick up and hold upside down.

How to do CPR on a dog or cat

If choking isn’t causing your pet’s distress, its heart has stopped beating, and it’s unconscious, you’ll need to perform CPR immediately. Without breath or pulse, dogs can die in as little as 4 minutes or sustain serious internal injuries after 2 minutes.

1. Follow the ABCs

If your pet is in distress, check their airway, breathing, and circulation. A conscious pet that can’t breathe is likely choking. An unconscious pet that’s not breathing is likely experiencing cardiac arrest — always check its pulse before starting CPR.

2. Place your pet on its side or back

Most cats and dogs may lie on either side for CPR. Barrel-chested dogs such as French bulldogs, however, must be placed on their backs.

3. Find the proper hand positioning

Once you’ve placed your dog on its side or back, determine where to press your hands. For small dogs and cats, place your hands where their elbows meet their heart. Larger dogs need chest compressions towards the middle of their ribs. Finally, barrel-chested dogs require compressions directly in the middle of their sternum.

4. Place one hand above the other

With your palms facing your pet, place one hand on top of the other. Tuck your fingers over your bottom hand. If you have a small cat or dog, only use one hand and squeeze the chest between your thumb and other fingers. Keep your elbows mostly straight with a slight bend to maximize the force. Don’t lean on your pet, however. You should fully release after each chest compression.

5. Start chest compressions

Keeping your hands on top of the other, begin chest compressions at a rate of 100 to 120 compressions per minute. It might be helpful to keep “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls in mind while you compress since it has the same tempo.

6. Give artificial respiration

Holding the sides of your dog’s muzzle tightly so that no air escapes, exhale deeply into their nose after 30 chest compressions. Wait for their lungs to fill and fall again before giving a second rescue breath.

7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 for at least 2 minutes

You may perform CPR on your pet for up to 20 minutes or until it can breathe naturally.

8. Head to the veterinarian

You’re probably already on your way if you have someone nearby to drive you and your pet, but even if you aren’t, and CPR is successful, head to the hospital immediately. Some causes of cardiac arrest are episodic. Your pet is likely to relapse soon unless the underlying condition is resolved.

Common causes of cardiac arrest in dogs and cats

Unfortunately, some common ailments may result in cardiac arrest. Examples include:

  • Congestive heart failure. Unfortunately, there isn’t a cure for congestive heart failure. Cardiac arrest can be a sign that the disease has progressed.
  • Heatstroke. Brachycephalic breeds such as the Boston terrier are especially susceptible since their short snouts impair breathing, making them more likely to overheat. Monitor your pet’s activity during the summer when hot weather puts them at risk of developing heatstroke.
  • Poisoning. Consuming large amounts of a toxic substance, such as chocolate or certain medications, can put your pet at risk of cardiac arrest.
  • Anaphylactic shock. An intense allergic reaction can potentially trigger cardiac arrest. Although it’s relatively rare, cats and dogs can experience life-threatening reactions to things like bee stings and ant bites, just like humans.
  • Massive bleeding. If your pet loses too much blood, it could experience cardiac arrest. Internal bleeding also puts pets at risk.
  • Seizures. Typically caused by an underlying disease or poisoning, seizures may accompany heart problems in your pet.

All of these situations are considered medical emergencies so you should take your pet to the vet as soon as you can.

Basic pet first-aid at home

Basic pet first-aid can prevent some emergencies before they happen.

Unfortunately, less than 10% of dogs survive to discharge from the veterinary hospital following cardiac arrest. It’s believed that slow response times might be behind the startlingly low statistic. Depending on what caused the arrest and the damage that resulted, many pet parents euthanize their pet. However, in cases where you react quickly, and the cause is something easily treatable, the prognosis is fairly good.

👉 The American Red Cross hosts online courses and in-person pet CPR classes, depending on where you live. This free YouTube tutorial may also help.

What to include in your pet’s first aid kit

Emergencies can happen anytime, so it’s a good idea to pack a bag of basic supplies. You should keep your pet’s first aid kit in an easily accessible place and bring it along when you travel or go on walks. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Contact information. Be sure to have emergency contact information for your pet’s regular vet and the nearest 24/7 clinic.
  • Gauze. Use gauze to protect a wound after cleaning it. This prevents bacteria from getting into it as you get your pet to an emergency vet hospital.
  • Bandages. Bandages can help secure the gauze to your pet or can help with creating a splint in the case of bad falls or breaks.
  • Tweezers. Splinters can happen to anyone, including dogs and cats. Keep tweezers on hand for these situations.
  • Adhesive tape. Necessary for bandages, the adhesive tape allows you to bandage up your pet more efficiently than self-adhesive bandages.
  • Syringe or turkey baster. Pets may have trouble drinking on their own. A needleless syringe or turkey baster can help get necessary fluids into your pet.
  • Collapsible water bowl. A collapsible water bowl is a good way to stay hydrated, even in day-to-day adventures with your pet.
  • Pet-safe antiseptic. Vetericyn spray is a safe alternative to popular antiseptics like hydrogen peroxide or isopropyl alcohol, which may damage your pet’s skin. Don’t apply anything to your pet’s skin without guidance from your vet.

It's OK to keep alcohol as a disinfectant for items, but not for your pet's skin. Vet staff will use alcohol for placing IV catheters or drawing blood. The same applies to hydrogen peroxide. One round probably won't hurt, but it does hurt healthy cells (it is cytotoxic) so repeated use on a wound or injury is a bad idea.

Dr. Erica Irish

Frequently asked questions

Does my cat or dog need CPR?

If your cat or dog falls unconscious and they’re not breathing, always check for a pulse. If their heart has stopped beating, you should begin CPR immediately. If they’re still conscious with a pulse but can’t breathe, they are probably choking. In this case, try to dislodge the object in their airway first.

Should I wait until I can get to a vet before trying CPR?

While you should call your vet as soon as your pet experiences an emergency situation, it’s unlikely that you’ll make it to the hospital fast enough to perform CPR there. Dogs can die in as little as 4 minutes without oxygen. Even at the 2-minute mark, critical damage is being done to their internal organs. You should begin CPR as soon as you notice your dog is unconscious, with your vet on the phone to guide you if possible.

CPR isn’t working. What else can I do?

While continuing CPR, have someone take you and your pet to the hospital or call a pet ambulance when the crisis starts. This allows medical professionals to take over as soon as possible. If there’s nothing else you can do, you can continue performing CPR for 20 minutes. Get to the vet as soon as possible.