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dog parent basics

A guide to basic pet first aid

Must-know fundamentals + techniques in case of an emergency

Updated April 6, 2020

Created By

Ashley Powell,

The last thing pet parents want is to see their furry family members in pain, but accidents and emergencies do happen. In the heat of the moment, it’s can be difficult to know what to do. The best thing you can do for your pet is to familiarize yourself with basic pet first aid techniques.

It’s part of being a responsible pet parent — it might even save your pet’s life.

🚨If you’re experiencing an emergency right now, we recommend you seek veterinary attention immediately. 

Limb injuries and fractures

Your pet may be limping and whining if their limb is injured. This could indicate a muscle or tendon injury, a fracture, or dislocation. If your pet is showing any signs of discomfort after an injury, this is a good indication that something isn’t right.

What to do:

  1. Place a muzzle on your pet if necessary. If a dog doesn’t let you do this, don’t push the point any further because nervous dogs can try to bite when applying muzzles.
  2. If there is an open wound fracture, carefully cover it with a clean gauze or towel and secure the bandage. Do not apply ointment to the open break. It’s best to wait until the veterinarian assesses the injury before applying any medication.
  3. If you suspect a broken bone, stabilize the limb with something sturdy like a rolled-up magazine and gently secure it with rolled gauze or elastic wrap. Be careful not to restrict blood flow by wrapping the injury too tightly; it should be firm, not tight. If your pet doesn’t tolerate this makeshift leg splint, don’t force it. Manipulating a fractured leg can be extremely painful without sedation.
  4. Cover your pet with a blanket or towel to keep them warm. Use a stretcher (flat board or blanket) to get them safely into your vehicle and to a veterinarian.

External bleeding

Scrapes, bites, scratches, and torn claws are all common injuries that can cause bleeding. External bleeding has fairly obvious symptoms. There will be blood coming from the skin and possibly caught in the fur. You may even notice a trail of drips or stains on the ground.

What to do:

  1. Place a muzzle on your pet if necessary.
  2. Flush the wound with water or an antiseptic solution safe for animals to remove any dirt or contaminants. If the wound is very deep, leave the wound cleaning to your vet unless directed to do so.
  3. Apply pressure to the wound with a clean cloth or gauze until the bleeding stops. If the wound is minor, remove the soaked gauze and cover it with a new clean bandage. Secure it and contact your veterinarian as soon as possible for advice on what to do next. For nails that have been clipped too short and start to bleed, use styptic powder or cornstarch to stop the bleeding.
  4. If bleeding is moderate, it could take a few minutes for it to stop. If blood comes through the cloth, place a new one on top and keep the pressure on. Once your pet is stabilized, head to your veterinarian or the nearest emergency veterinary hospital for evaluation and possible treatment. If the cut is deep, further flushing and antibiotic treatment may be necessary.
  5. For severe bleeding on a limb, a tourniquet can be applied between the wound and the body while also keeping pressure on the wound. It must be loosened every 15-20 minutes for 15-20 seconds and then reapplied. A tourniquet should only be used as a last resort on a limb or tail as it may result in a life-long injury or loss.

Severe, uncontrollable bleeding is life-threatening, and you need to get your pet to a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Internal bleeding

If your pet was hit by a car or fell from high up, they might be bleeding on the inside. Internal bleeding is difficult to detect because the symptoms are not as obvious or clear as external bleeding. Some signs to look for are:

  • pale gums
  • bleeding from the nose or mouth
  • blood in the urine
  • rapid heartbeat
  • weakness
  • collapse
  • coughing up blood

This is a serious condition that needs immediate professional veterinary attention.

What to do:

  1. Prepare your pet for transport to a veterinarian. Use a stretcher (a flat board or blanket) if necessary.
  2. It’s important to keep your animal as calm and quiet as possible on the way to the clinic.

Burns

Pets are commonly burned by electrocution, chemical exposure, and hot liquids or objects. Animals who have been burned will show signs of pain and discomfort in the form of whining or even limping if a limb is affected. The skin may appear red but intact (first-degree), or there may be a partial or complete loss of multiple layers of skin depending on the severity (second-degree and third-degree). Your pet may go into shock, a life-threatening state if the burn is severe and/or covers a large area of the body.

What to do:

  1. Place a muzzle on your pet if necessary.
  2. Do not apply any creams or ointments to the burn.
  3. For less-severe burns from hot liquid, hot objects, or electrocution (turn off electricity or power to equipment before approaching the animal), cool the burn down with a gentle flow of cold water in the shower.
  4. After rinsing, apply a cold compress with a clean, wet, and cool washcloth for no longer than 10 minutes (avoid using ice). Cover the burn with a non-stick bandage and call your veterinarian for the next steps. Depending on how severe the burn is, professional attention may be needed.

If your pet has been burned from chemical exposure, put on gloves to protect your hands while you tend to their burn. Remove any collars or accessories that may have come into contact with the chemical and rinse the area with cold water for 15-20 minutes. Cover the burn with a non-stick bandage and call your veterinarian for the next steps and possible further treatment.

Second-degree and third-degree burns are more serious because multiple layers of skin are involved. These burns require immediate veterinary attention and could send your dog into shock. Cover the affected area with a clean and dry gauze that won’t stick to the wound. Stabilize your pet and transport them to your veterinarian or the nearest emergency veterinary hospital immediately.

Choking

Curious pets can get into trouble as they chew on things they shouldn’t. If your pet is showing these signs, they could be choking. Look out for choking sounds like coughing and gagging, difficulty breathing, pawing at their mouth, and blue discoloration of the gums and tongue.

What to do:

    1. If your pet allows you to safely open their mouth, do so with caution. Having another person help restrain the animal while you check their mouth is helpful.
    2. Look into the mouth, if possible, and remove the object gently. Be careful not to push it further into the throat. If you aren’t able to remove the object safely, you must decide to either perform a dislodging maneuver or take your pet immediately to a nearby veterinarian or emergency veterinary hospital.
    3. To attempt a dislodging maneuver on a small dog or cat, hold them upright with their back against your chest. Place one hand in a closed fist under their ribcage below the sternum with your thumb against the abdomen, and place your other hand on top of your fist. Perform five thrusts in and up toward their head to force air out of the lungs. Sweep their mouth to see if the object was dislodged.
    4. For dislodging an object from a large dog, stand behind them and wrap your arms around their abdomen. Place one hand in a closed fist under the rib cage below the sternum with your thumb against the abdomen, and place your other hand on top of your fist. Perform five thrusts up and forward toward their head to force air out of their lungs. Sweep their mouth to see if the object was dislodged.
    5. Repeat the maneuver until the object is free or while on your way to a veterinarian.

Heimlich Maneuver for small dogs

Heimlich Maneuver for Large Dogs

Ingestion of harmful items

Chemicals, toxic food, clothing, small toys, and plants can be hazardous to our animals, but curiosity gets the best of them sometimes. Some symptoms your pet may be showing include lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, difficulty breathing, and loss of consciousness. These signs may be helpful if you’re unsure if they have ingested something harmful.

What to do:

  1. If you know your pet has ingested something harmful, contact your veterinarian or the Animal Poison Control Center (888-4ANI-HELP) right away. The more details you can give about your pet, what they ingested, and when they ingested it will help your contact give you the best advice. Depending on the circumstance, you may need to seek immediate professional attention.
  2. The ingestion of foreign bodies like toys, socks, and screws may require surgical removal. X-rays or ultrasounds can help identify the object(s) and help your vet determine the best course of action.
  3. Make sure harmful chemicals and food are secured and out of reach of pets in and around the home. Educate yourself on plants to avoid having ones in your yard that may be harmful to your pet.

👉 For more information on what to look out for and how to prevent incidents, take a look at the AVMA’s Household Hazards brochure.

Heatstroke

Heatstroke

Pets are susceptible to overheating, just like people. There are ways to prevent heatstroke, and most are common sense. If you find your pet is panting, gasping for air, having difficulty walking, or collapsing, then they may be suffering from heatstroke.

What to do:

  1. The first step is to start to slowly cool your pet down.
  2. Place your pet in a tub and begin to cool them down with room-temperature water. It’s best not to fill the tub because your pet could lose consciousness and drown. Do not use ice or very cold water because this will constrict the blood vessels too quickly. Make sure the underbelly and inner parts of the legs are thoroughly wet.
  3. Check your pet’s temperature. A dog’s normal body temperature ranges from 99°F to 102.5°F, and a cat from 100°F to 102.5°F. As your pet’s temperature gets closer to 106°F and 107°F, they are in extreme danger and need immediate medical attention.
  4. Once you have cooled your pet off significantly, transport them to your veterinarian for immediate attention. An animal who has suffered from heatstroke can quickly go downhill without treatment.

Preventing heatstroke is the best thing you can do. Do not leave your animal in a car even on slightly warmer days. Know your pet’s tolerance when it’s hot outside. Keep them in a cool shady area or inside on hot days, and always ensure your pet has access to fresh water. For dogs that are brachycephalic (short noses), avoid outdoor activity in the summertime. Dog breeds like pugs, French bulldogs, and Boston terriers aren’t able to breathe or pant efficiently to keep cool in hot weather.

Shock

After a severe trauma like being hit by a car or being burned, your pet may enter into a state of shock. When the body goes into shock, it isn’t getting enough oxygen due to diminished blood flow to the internal organs. Shock is a life-threatening condition, and immediate medical attention is necessary. Symptoms of shock are depression, pale and cool gums, rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, weak pulse, low body temperature, and a dazed look.

What to do:

  1. Because of the nature of this situation, your main objective should be to transport your pet to the closest veterinarian or emergency veterinary hospital.
  2. Have your pet lay down on their side with their head lower than the rest of their body. Cover them with a blanket or towel to keep them warm. Make sure they are as quiet and calm as possible to avoid further complications.
  3. Use a stretcher (flat board or blanket) to get them into your vehicle and transported for treatment.

Not breathing

Realizing your pet isn’t breathing is scary and stressful. Pale gums and no movement of the chest are signs of apnea, or not breathing. Without oxygen, your pet is in danger.

What to do:

  1. Stay as calm as you can in this situation to best help your pet. It is ideal to have someone nearby call a veterinarian while you tend to your pet.
  2. First, open your pet’s mouth and gently pull the tongue forward to check for any foreign object that may be obstructing their airway. If there is an object blocking their airway, follow the steps above under “Choking.”
  3. Check for a heartbeat. If there is no heartbeat, see the section below, “CPR.”
  4. Now it’s time to perform rescue breathing. Hold your pet’s mouth closed with one hand and breathe directly into the nose with your mouth until you see their chest rise. Continue to give a breath every 30 seconds.
  5. Perform rescue breathing until your animal starts breathing again or until you arrive at a veterinarian’s office or emergency veterinary hospital.

Contact your veterinarian for advice, even if your animal begins to breathe again.

CPR

If your animal is unconscious, isn’t breathing, doesn’t have a pulse, and has pale gums, they need CPR.

What to do:

  1. First, follow the steps in the above section, “Not breathing,” to make sure your pet’s airway is clear, and you’ve started rescue breathing.
  2. On a hard surface, lay your pet down on their right side. Place the heel of one of your hands directly over the heart (under the front left elbow), then place the other hand on top of the first. For small dogs and cats whose chests aren’t as large, use one hand around the chest with your thumb under their left elbow and your fingers under their right elbow.
  3. Begin chest compressions at a rate of 100-120 per minute, compressing ⅓ to ½ the width of your pet’s chest. Allow the chest to come all the way back up with each compression. Compressing the chest to the beat of “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees (and even a little faster) will give you a good idea of how fast the rhythm should be.
  4. Give a rescue breath every 30 seconds. Allow the chest to fully rise and fall with each breath.
  5. Continue compressions and rescue breathing, checking for a heartbeat every two minutes. Take turns with another person if you’re able to so you can rest. CPR can be very tiring.
  6. Perform CPR until you arrive at the veterinarian’s office or emergency veterinary hospital.

Contact your veterinarian for advice, even if your animal’s heartbeat and breathing returns.

Build your own pet first aid kit

Another way you can be prepared for an emergency is with a first aid kit just for your pet. Having the right tools for the situation can make responding less stressful. Here’s a list we created with the help of this AVMA article to stock up your kit.

  • Phone numbers. Animal Poison Control Center (888-4ANI-HELP) and an emergency veterinary clinic near you. If there is an animal ambulance service near you, add their number too. Transporting large animals who are injured is difficult, and a helping hand may be just what you need.
  • Leash. It’s useful to have a spare handy, especially in an emergency.
  • Gauze pads. Use these for wounds or if you need to make a muzzle.
  • Syringe without a needle. A multi-use tool for giving medicine or cleaning wounds.
  • Towels and non-stick bandages. Stop bleeding or cover wounds.
  • Adhesive medical tape. Keep bandages in place.
  • Tweezers. Great for removing thorns and splinters.
  • Digital thermometer. Make sure you have a thermometer that will read high enough for your pet. A pet’s temperature is taken rectally.
  • Rubber gloves. Protect your hands and your pet’s wounds.
  • Stretcher. Use a board, blanket, or mat to move your pet safely.
  • Muzzle. Muzzle your pet if they’re not vomiting. Animals can become fearful and defensive when injured. You can also use a necktie, rope, gauze, or stocking in an emergency.
  • Milk of magnesia/activated charcoal. Contact poison control and/or your veterinarian before you try to induce vomiting or treatment for poisoning.
  • Hydrogen peroxide (3%). Contact poison control and/or your veterinarian before you try to induce vomiting or treatment for poisoning.

Be sure to check inventory on your kit every few months to make sure items aren’t expired.

Become certified in first aid for cats and dogs

Prepare a step further and earn a certification for first aid and/or CPR for cats and dogs. Here are some links to the Red Cross and Pet Tech websites where you can register to join a class. Classes ranging from 35 minutes to 8 hours will cover the need-to-know information on responding to emergencies for your cat or dog.

Please remember, first aid does not replace veterinary treatment. While these procedures you perform on your pet may save their life, they should be immediately followed by veterinary care.