Pet First Aid - Jim Burwell’s Petiquette

Before You Get to the Vet

If an accident occurs that sickens or injures your dog, you might need to perform on-the-spot first aid to stabilize and console your pet, prior to visiting your veterinarian. Times like these can be scary and upsetting. Try to remain calm as you address the situation at hand.

Here are a few other behavior tips, provided by the American Red Cross:

  • Always approach a sick or injured animal slowly and cautiously.
  • Watch the body expressions and sounds your pet makes to warn you. Even your own pet can be aggressive when in pain or frightened.
  • Do not make quick, jerky or loud movements. They might further scare your pet.
  • When necessary, use towels or blankets to subdue cats or small dogs.
  • Keep the phone number and address of your veterinarian in a convenient location.
  • Have the phone number and address of an after-hours veterinary clinic on hand and keep directions to that clinic in the same place. Whenever possible, call ahead to let them know you’ll be coming.

The American Red Cross Pet First Aid book can help you learn more about caring for your pet in an emergency. To purchase the Pet First Aid book, contact your local Red Cross, or purchase it online.

In the text here, we have covered a variety of problems you might experience. Once you have addressed the immediate need, transport your dog as quickly as possible to a location where professional attention is available. If your veterinarian’s office is closed, contact the nearest emergency clinic. Consider keeping your own veterinarian’s phone number in you wallet or purse.

Show your love for your dog by being prepared for an emergency!

Abdominal Pain/Retching/Restlessness/Vomiting Foamy Mucus

If your dog is exhibiting two or more of these symptoms, your pet might be suffering from gastric dilatation volvulus, which vets call GDV. Few afflictions kill an otherwise healthy dog as quickly as gastric dilation (GD) or “bloat,” and volvulus (V), or “torsion.” Bloat describes a stomach that is abnormally enlarged or distended, and filled with gas, food and/or liquids. Torsion is the abnormal positioning of the stomach caused by the stomach’s twisting or flipping. Bloat usually leads to torsion, although torsion can occur without bloat. Bloat can usually be detected when you make the dog stand up and gently feel his/her abdomen. The abdomen should feel soft and tapered inward when the dog is relaxed. If the abdomen feels hard, or sounds hollow (like a drum) when you tap it gently with your hand, then your dog is probably bloating or even torsioning. Get the dog in to the veterinarian (or at least call) right away and let him or her know that you suspect GDV.


Clean the area, then apply a pressure bandage — sterile gauze, a towel or handkerchief — and phone your veterinarian. If you are finding blood in your pet’s stool, you will want your dog to have a fecal exam to check for parasites and other problems. This may also be diet related. A trip to the vet is in order.

Blood Circulation

An accelerated heart rate with no apparent cause warrants professional attention. To assess the situation yourself, check the heart rate. To do this, either place your hand on the dog’s chest or your fingers on the femoral artery, located on the inner side of the dog’s hind leg, high on the flank. Your dog’s rate should be between 60 and 120 beats a minute, smaller dogs’ heart being the faster. A Chihuahua’s heart might beat around 95 times a minute, while a Great Dane’s will beat around 70 times. You can generally assess the overall circulatory health of your pet by looking at the gums, cheek and eyelids (mucous membranes), the whites of the eyes or the inside flaps of the ear. You hope to see healthy, pink color. If you find these areas to be pale, your pet may have circulation problems, in which case you should notify your veterinarian. If you find the tissue to be blue, you can suspect inadequate circulation, and you should call the vet immediately. Likewise, notify your doctor if find a yellow, or jaundiced, color, which can indicate compromised liver function.

Breathing Stopped

If you discover that you pet has stopped breathing, prepare to administer first aid — and have another person call your veterinarian or an after-hours emergency clinic to inform them of your situation. Before or as the call is being made, check to see if your dog’s airway is being obstructed by a foreign object.If the airway is blocked, see “Choking,” below. If the airway and mouth are clear, lay your dog down on its right side.Check for a heartbeat by listening to the chest where your pet’s “elbow” touches the ribs.Should you find that there is no heartbeat, you can start CPR, if you have been trained to administer it. In brief, here are the basics: Start chest compressions with the flat of your hand, just as you would on a human.For small dogs, use one hand; for larger dogs, use both of your hands. Compress your dog’s chest 10 times, about once per second, then administer a “rescue breath” for the animal. To breathe for your dog, extend your dog’s neck so that there is a straight airway, close its mouth, place your mouth around its muzzle and blow air into the nose until the chest expands.(Be sure to keep the neck out straight, not flexed.) You should be able to see the chest expand with each breath. Don’t overexert when you are forcing air into the lungs. After each rescue breath, assess your pet to see if breathing has restarted. If breathing has begun, stop CPR. If not, then repeat the 10-compressions/one-breath exercise. Your vet can make the call as to when you stop CPR. Sadly, CPR is rarely successful in animals. But give it your best effort, even knowing that your pet may already have died.

Broken Bone

When you suspect your dog has broken a bone, then stabilize the limb with a splint. You can make an easy splint by wrapping the limb with a gauze or a towel. Make sure your make-shift splint is long enough to go above and below the fracture. You can also roll up some newspaper and wrap with adhesive tape for a splint. Then place your dog on a board, blanket or towel (a stretcher) and promptly get your pet professional attention. Watch for bleeding or symptoms of shock: a pale color to your dog’s gums, a racing pulse, rapid breathing or loss of consciousness.


Again, this is treated much as you would on a human. Apply a cold compress or ice to the wound. Hold it in place gently until you can transport your pet to a veterinary clinic.


Check to see if your animal is choking on a foreign object. If so, be careful not to get bitten, or push the object further down the throat. Pliers or tweezers may be used to grasp the object if the animal is calm. You may also use a variation of the Heimlich Maneuver: Turn your pet upside down, with its back against your chest. Hug the animal with your one fist placed in your other hand, just below your dog’s rib cage. With both arms, give five sharp bear hugs to your pet’s abdomen (easier on smaller dogs.) Perform each thrust as if it is the one that will expel the object. After five hugs (or sooner if you feel the object has been dislodged), check your pet’s airway. If the object is visible, remove it and give your pet two CPR-style rescue breaths. To perform a rescue breath, extend your dog’s neck so that there is a straight airway, close its mouth, place your mouth around its muzzle and blow air into the nose until the chest expands.(Be sure to keep the neck out straight, not flexed.) You should be able to see the chest expand with each breath. Do not overexert when you are forcing air into the lungs. If the breaths do not go in, re-start the canine Heimlich Maneuver. If after your dog’s airway is clear, your pet is not breathing, begin performing CPR rescue breaths and contact your veterinarian immediately. Ideally you can get assistance for this. Your doctor can advise you on when to stop CPR.


There are numerous causes of diarrhea. Sometimes diarrhea can be a symptom of a serious problem. Other time it may be age-related. However, it is not normal and warrants a diagnostic workup at your vet’s office. If the diarrhea continues, it will certainly be detrimental to the dog’s health. It could be as simple as a case of worms, or other parasites, or it could be something more complicated.


If your dog’s temperature rises to above 103ºF, contact your veterinarian for counsel and medication. You can check your pet’s temperature by using a well-lubricated (K-Y Jelly or similar lubricant) rectal thermometer. See “Hyperthermia,” below.

Harmful Plants

Dangers to your dog may be as close as your backyard; your dog may have a toxic, or even fatal, reaction to many common plants. Download a PDF of Pretty Yet Deadly, a guide to harmful plants.


Heatstroke is a significant risk to dogs in summertime, particularly to a pet that has little or no shade and water, or one that is confined in a close space. Don’t let these conditions occur! A dog with moderate heatstroke (body temperature from 104º to 106ºF) can recover within an hour, if given prompt first aid and veterinary care (normal body temperature is 100°F to 102.5°F). Severe heatstroke (body temperature over 106ºF) can be deadly and immediate veterinary attention is warranted. Heatstroke can manifest itself in many ways: rapid panting; bright red tongue; red or pale gums; thick, sticky saliva; depression; weakness; dizziness; vomiting (sometimes with blood); diarrhea; shock or even coma. If you suspect heatstroke, remove the dog from the hot area immediately. Prior to taking him to your vet, lower his temperature by submerging his body in water, keeping his head elevated above the water. Alternatively, use a sponge, shower or hose to wet him down. For very small dogs, use lukewarm water; for larger breeds cold water may be used. Cooling should occur gradually. Cooling too quickly or allowing your pet’s body temperature to become too low can cause other life-threatening medical conditions. You can check your pet’s temperature by using a well-lubricated rectal thermometer. His or her rectal temperature should be checked every five minutes during your cool-down. Once the body temperature is 103ºF, the cooling measures should be stopped. Even if your dog appears to have recovered before you reach the veterinarian, your pet should still be examined. Your dog may be dehydrated or have other complications. Place him on a wet towel and keep cooling the dog (using the vehicle’s A/C or keeping the windows down) during your travel. Allow your dog access to water, or to a children’s rehydrating solution, if your pet can drink on his or her own. Do not try to force-feed the dog cold water, or your pet might inhale it and choke. See your veterinarian as quickly as possible. Note: Overweight animals are more prone to develop heatstroke, so keep your dog at his optimal weight.

Low Temperature/Hypothermia

Prolonged exposure to cold results in a drop in your dog’s body temperature. It is most likely to occur when your pet dog is wet. Hypothermia is most often seen in toy breeds and those with short hair. Hypothermia also occurs in shock, after a long anesthetic and in newborn pups. Symptoms of hypothermia are violent shivering followed by listlessness and apathy, a rectal temperature below 98°F and, finally, collapse and coma. To address the problem, wrap your dog in a blanket or coat and carry it inside your home. If your dog is wet (having fallen into ice water), give the animal a warm bath. Rub vigorously with towels to dry the skin. You can warm a chilled dog by applying warm water packs to the armpit, chest and abdomen. The temperature of the packs should be about that of a baby bottle (warm to the wrist). You can also warm your pet with a hair dryer set on medium, a heating pad or blanket. Continue your treatment until your pet’s rectal temperature reaches 100°F. As your dog warms and begins to move about, you can provide honey or sugar water (four tablespoons to a pint of water). At your earliest convenience, visit your veterinary clinic to have your pet’s health evaluated.


In general, what to know is that you should call your veterinarian or poison control center as soon as you suspect your dog has ingested any type of poison. The big question is whether you should induce vomiting. By nature dogs are curious. They tend to chew on objects they find, hunt small game and explore isolated places. This puts them in contact with dangerous baits, insects, animals and plants. Often when a pet poisoning occurs, the specific cause is never known. The treatment varies widely, according to the symptoms, which include mouth irritation, drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, hallucination, seizures and coma. Check with the experts. The ASPCA maintains a Poison Control Center that can be reached at1-800-548-2423 or 1-900-680-0000.

Puncture Wounds

Any time your pet experiences a puncture wound, whether from another animal or from a household hazard, take action. Clean the wound, apply an antibacterial cream, and then promptly see your veterinarian.

Respiratory Distress

Symptoms of respiratory distress in your dog will be open-mouth breathing (more than just panting), chest breathing (rather than abdominal breathing), a pale color to your pet’s tongue and mouth, an extended head and neck (as struggling to breathe) and restlessness. If you observe these symptoms, try to calm your pet. If feasible, check your dog’s airway (See “Chocking,” above.) If you find no apparent cause of the distress, or if you cannot remove the cause you find, get your pet to a veterinary clinic immediately.


Seizures can have a variety of symptoms. Your pet may be vocalizing and drooling excessively. The dog could be twitching or “paddling” uncontrollably. You might see straight, rigid limbs. Or the dog’s head and neck might be arched back. If you suspect a seizure, place plenty of padding around your pet to prevent an injury. NEVER place your hand near your dog’s mouth. Cradling your dog in a blanket or towel, carefully transport your pet to the veterinarian as quickly as possible. Call ahead to alert the clinic to your situation.

In all cases, remember to consult your veterinarian, because even small abrasions can grow into major problems. Also remember that you dog can be suffering internal injuries that you cannot see. Again, keep the phone number of your veterinarian and your nearest after-hours emergency clinic handy. When an emergency occurs, you will be glad you have it nearby.