Pet Emergencies – What can I do?

The following advice is not meant to replace the role of the veterinarian. However, for animals, we as the owners are generally the first responders to our pets in need. Being prepared for such unforeseen emergencies, will help ease your stress and hopefully help save your pets life.

The aim is to stabilise the pet, relieve pain if possible and provide safe transportation until you reach your vet.

Always remember, the safety of humans takes priority. You cannot help your pet if you put yourself or others in danger.

Stay Safe
Asses the environment and avoid danger or remove possibilities of further injuries.
Eg. if the animal is in the road, get it onto the side of the road immediately.

Animals in pain can be dangerous, even your own dog may want to bite due to being in shock and/or pain. If necessary, restrain the pet with a muzzle, towel or blanket (warm jacket etc) to prevent you being bitten or scratched.

If possible, transport a cat in a box to the vet.

During Car Accidents – Where you are able to assist
Remove the animal to the side of the road to a shady area, it may require you to drag them if they are large and unable to walk.

Check them to see if they are conscious and breathing (rise and fall of the chest, holding a hand or tissue in front of the nose). Check the eyes & pupils – If the eyes are open and staring with a dilated pupil, the animal will need CPR (IF NO obvious severe evisceration etc is seen).

Perform CPR if no sign of breathing – Remember ABC :  A – Airway /  B – Breathing / C- Circulation (Heart beat)

How to perform CPR in your pet.

A – Airway;
Ensure the airway is clear, remove any vomit, fluid, foreign body and pull the tongue forward.

B- Breathing;
Perform Nose-to-mouth breathing: Nose-to-mouth resuscitation is administered by first pulling the tongue forward so the tip is just through the teeth and closing the mouth.  Place your hands around the closed mouth sealing it as best you can.  Extend the neck to make a straight line from the nose to the tail and breathe into the animal’s nose.  Small dogs or cats need smaller breaths than large dogs.  After five breaths, re-assess the animal by feeling for a heartbeat and breathing.  If the animal still has a heartbeat but is not breathing, continue with resuscitation at 12 breaths a minute for small dogs and cats and 20 breaths for large dogs.  If the animal doesn’t have a heartbeat, start performing chest compressions

C- Circulation;
Check for a heart beat – Lay the dog on their right side, push the front elbow back to the chest. The spot where the elbow touches the chest is called the inter-costal space and marks where the heart is located. If you don’t see any movement in this area, place your hand over the same location and feel for a heartbeat. If no heartbeat, then start compressions.

Put both hands on the chest with straight arms, and perform cardiac compressions. For the number of compressions, the beat of “staying alive” from the Beegies is ideal.

Lay your hand over the heart (at the inter-costal space) and press firmly enough to compress the chest about one-third to one-half its usual depth. You should aim for 10 – 12 compressions over a five-second span. Repeat these steps at a one breath to 10 – 12 compressions ratio. Because you will be doing more than 100 compressions per minute, a new person should take over compressions after two minutes.

In very large dogs, if a third person is available, also compress the abdomen in large breeds. (If you’re gently compress the front part of the belly or squeeze the dog’s abdomen. Performing these chest compressions can help circulate blood back to the heart. However, it’s most important to focus on the rescue breathing and compressions. Abdominal compressions should be a secondary focus).

In deep chested dogs (eg Bull Dog, Boxer, Boerboel) perform compressions with the dog lying on its back instead of on its side.

Assess the dog
Check periodically to see if the dog has started breathing again – about every two minutes. If not, continue with the artificial respirations until help arrives or you are able to continue CPR while someone drives everyone to the vet.

Recovery Position
If the animal is breathing but still unconscious, lay it on its side with the head and neck slightly extended.  Fold a blanket or towels and place it under the shoulder but not the neck so that the chest is above the head.  This prevents fluids from the mouth going into the lungs.  Keep the pet warm with blankets and transport it as soon as possible to the veterinarian.

Wounds and Bleeding
Approach wounds as you would for a person. Wounds can be anything from a cut, punctures, scrapes or abrasions, to burn wounds.

If excessive bleeding – apply pressure above the wound (between the heart and the wound), cover the wound with a clean cloth or gauze swabs, and bandage until you can reach the vet. Do not remove the initial layers, (this may remove the clot that is forming and cause more bleeding).

Wounds with debri – gently trim excess hair around wound, rinse with running water / saline or flush with a syringe, apply silbecor / anti-septic cream, cover and bandage until you can reach the vet. Paw wounds can be soaked.

Penetration wounds – DO NOT remove any sticks / sharp objects penetrating the chest or abdomen – this may exacerbate internal problems. If necessary, apply dressings around the foreign objects and stabilize the pet and get to the vet as soon as possible.

Grazes and abrasions can be dealt with by trimming the fur around the area, cleaning with water or saline and apply a dressing making sure that it won’t stick to the wound.   

Knowing your animal is important to distinguish what is not “normal” and gauging how they are doing in a case of emergency.

What is shock? Shock is the body’s way of protecting itself. Recognizing symptoms of shock may save your animals life. There are different reasons for a shocked state, e.g blood loss, being septic due to severe infection, anaphylaxis, extreme pain to name a few obvious examples.

Symptoms will include: weakness (an animal is unable to stand/walk), pale gums (pale pink to white, or bright red to even purple), short shallow breaths, cold legs and paws or having seizures.

Examples that can lead to shock; Car accidents, falling off a height, severe infection (pyometra) or disease (diabetes), weather extremities, seizures, severe bleeding from wounds, burn wounds, knife stab wounds, gun shot wounds (including pellet guns), ruptured stomach ulcers, toxin ingestion for example.

In most cases, manage severe bleeding, keep the animal warm (wrap in a blanket) and try to keep them quiet, continue to talk calmy and gently to them and stroke them softly if they’ll allow. Do not offer food or water, alert the vet you are on the way and transport the animal there immediately.

Obvious signs of poisoning include drooling, vomiting, severe diarrhoea, twitching, tiredness, difficulty breathing and convulsions / seizures, collapsed pet.

Identify the toxin if possible and call your vet for immediate advice, have the following information at hand:

  • How much does your pet weigh?
  • What is the name of the toxin?
  • If the toxin is a medicine:
    What is the strength?
    What is the generic name?
    – Is it a special formulation (e.g., extended release)?
  • What is the active ingredient of the toxin?
  • How much do you think your pet ingested?
  • How much could your pet have ingested? (worst-case scenario)
  • How long ago (or what general time frame) did your pet ingest the toxin?
  • Is your pet showing any signs/symptoms?
  • If so, how long have you noticed the signs/symptoms?
  • How old is your pet?
  • Does your pet have any underlying health issues?
  • Is your pet currently on any medications?

It is vital to keep the pet quiet and warm and only act on the vet’s instructions as this will differ depending on the substance that was swallowed.

In the event that an animal has consumed something toxic, and you are aware of this in time, to get them to vomit (inducing emesis) before most of the absorption can take place is the best option. The golden window is within the first 30 minutes of ingestion, but even then, we can only hope for a maximum of 60% of the content to be expelled.

3% hydrogen peroxide has been recommended to use at home in the past, but the latest information has confirmed complications with oesophageal lesions and stomach ulceration, which is why it should be best avoided.

Emesis induction is contraindicated in patients that are symptomatic, have airway disease, have an altered mentation, have already been vomiting, or have ingested a corrosive/caustic agent.

Most common poisonings are due to garden chemicals, rat and snail bait, chocolate, paint or human medications in the home, consuming batteries.

At home remedy: You can attempt to get your dog to vomit by giving it a bolus of a “golf ball size” of non-exothermic washing powder (if you wet the washing power and hold it in your hand, and it does not become warm it is safe to use). If they do not vomit within 5 min, get them to the vet immediately.

Most poisonings will still require veterinary treatment as mentioned we can at best hope for only 40-60% of the toxin being expelled, but if you can prevent the major source of absorption, this can help reduce the long term effects.

If you are not sure if a product is toxic, you can always call your emergency vet for advice.
The American Animal Poisoning Control website and app can be helpful to refer to as well.

Choking is one of the most stressful emergencies one will experience. This occurs when an object blocks air from interring and leaving the lungs. The foreign object may even be lodged in the oesophagus. Physiological choking may occur due to laryngeal paralysis, anaphylaxis or heat stroke.

Symptoms include a very distressed animal, pawing at the mouth, severe respiratory distress (forceful breathing attempts), blue tongue or gums, gasping / choking sounds, excessive salivation and bulging, large eyes.

If the animal is in extreme distress, and no obvious foreign body can be identified, stay calm and bring that animal to vet as soon as possible.

Alternatively, one can try to remove the object from a choking dog’s windpipe, if it is conscious, open the mouth by grasping the upper jaw with one hand and the lower jaw with the other, tilting the head back slightly.  Pull the tongue to the side and remove the object if possible.  If this isn’t possible, stand behind the dog, put your arms under their belly just in front of the rear limbs and lift their hind legs high off the ground like a wheelbarrow.  Gently shake to see if the object will fall out.  This procedure can be repeated up to 4 times. If the foreign object cannot be dislodged or it is dangerous for you to attempt removing it, contact the vet for advice immediately.

Cats should be restrained in a towel first.  Their mouth can be opened by gently pulling the head upwards and slightly back by placing the thumb and finger on either side of the jaw and the palm across the head.  Use the other hand to lower the bottom jaw and remove the object.

See this video and image of the Heimlich manoeuvre in a pet.

Convulsions / Seizures / Fits
Seizures can be a symptom of a problem or a medical condition in your dog. If your dog shows this for the first time, a veterinarian must always be consulted. Causes for these can be due to poisoning, illness, infections and epilepsy.

What does a seizure look like? The animal will become distressed and restless. The first signs usually will be that of excessive drooling, lip smacking, moving into champing jaws / jaw clattering, staring eyes, urination, defecation, collapse, falling over and paddling.

IF you see this, do not approach the animal or try to “remove the tongue from the mouth”. Stay calm and start timing the seizure. Move objects away that may fall on the animal or hurt the animal, and tone done lights and noise (eg. the radio playing).

IF the seizure continues for longer than 5min, roll the animal on a towel or blanket and with the help of someone if it is a large dog, place into the car and take to the vet.

If the seizure is short acting, wait calmly until it is over, contact your vet and take it in for examination. Seizures generally only last for a few seconds, it will always feel longer. Convulsions or ‘fits’ can be quite traumatizing for a pet owner to witness.

Heat Stroke
Heat stroke is when the body’s core temperature rises above normal and due certain factors, they are not able to cool down. This starts a series of events in the body that may lead to complete organ failure and death. This is a very serious condition.

Common causes are from animals exercising in the heat of the day. From a pet being left in a car or area with no shade or ventilation. Brachycephalic dogs and cats are even more predisposed to this due to their restricted airways.

Symptoms are an animal panting excessively with increased breathing noises (from the throat), vomiting, drooling, distress, loss of coordination, collapse and acute death. The animal will also feel very warm by touch.

Should you suspect your pet maybe suffering from heat stroke, remove the animal from the hot environment, start cooling them down with cool to luke warm water. Place a fan on them or drive with the aircon on / windows open. Ice packs covered in a wet towel can be placed between the legs front (auxilla) and back (inguinal).

Transport the animal to the vet as soon as possible.

NEVER immerse the pet or use ice cold water over the body. It will only trap the core temperature due to vasoconstriction and make the heat stroke worse.

Once the pet is comfortable again offer cool water but only in small amounts.  Too much water taken in quickly may cause vomiting.

Bites and Stings
Although knowing what caused the bite or sting is helpful to the veterinarian, never put yourself at risk to try to kill or locate it.

Bee Stings
One of the most common stings that we see. Most bee stings are fortunately not a lethal problem, but may cause allergies.  Most will be stung around the mouth & face, sometimes paw. They can develop fascial swelling, urticaria (lumps and bumps everywhere) and worse case scenario, develop anaphylaxis.

In minor reactions, see if you can find the sting and remove with a sharp knife / bank card by scraping against the angle of sting. Do not struggle with fingers as it will “pump” more venom into the animal.

A cold compress can be applied to the area swelling up, and animal should be taken to the vet.

In the unfortunate event that the animals have been attacked by a swarm of bees, get them to the vet immediately. This is a very serious matter.

Scorpion Stings
Scorpion stings are extremely painful and maybe lethal. Symptoms will range from vocalizing due to unrelenting pain, excessive drooling, tremors, weakness, ataxia, collapse, paralysis and even death.

Anti-venom must be administered and generally the treatment of choice is an induced coma to manage the pain.

Snake Bites
As for snake bites, the treatment of choice is anti-venom administered by your emergency veterinarian.

Stay safe, remove the animal away from the culprit snake if possible and remain calm. Call your emergency vet while on the way. If possible, take a picture / identify the snake.

In South Africa we have 3 types of snake venom – Anti-coagulant (Boom slang), Neurotoxic (eg. Cobra’s) and Cytotoxic ( eg. Puff adder). Boom slang anti-venom must be obtained specifically and fortunately, for the rest we have multi-venom anti-venom vials available in South Africa.

Spider bites
Spider bites are mostly cytotoxic and can cause severe necrotic wounds.

What you can do on the way to vet with in these situations;

Stay calm, and if possible, identify the poisonous animal – take a picture with your phone.

In the case of limbs, initial treatment is to apply a pressure immobilisation bandage. This is done using a crepe or conforming bandage (or panty hose if a bandage is not available) over the bitten area and around the limb. Apply it firmly but not so tight that it stops the blood flow. Bandage down to the paw and then up as far as possible on the limb. A splint can be applied using a rolled-up newspaper or piece of wood with a second bandage. Do not remove the bandages, keep the animal as quiet as possible and transport him to the vet immediately.

Near Drowning
In the event that an animal is found in the pool – Immediately remove the animal, hang upside down to allow for excess fluid to drain from the lungs, neck and mouth.

If non-responsive, check for heart beat and breathing.
If a heartbeat is present start to perform CPR, with the heart beat only perform breathing until animal become responsive. Take to the vet as soon as possible.
Please note whether you have a salt or chlorine pool.

If no heart beat present, full on CPR is required.

CPR on dogs

First Aid for Pets – How to prepare for the unexpected