How and When to Administer First Aid to Your Pet

BY Elizabeth Kowalski, CVT, FFCP

Vet wrapping dogs paw in bandage

Pet accidents and emergencies can happen at any time, yet many pet owners aren’t prepared to handle them. Although you’ll still need to seek veterinary care in most cases, learning pet first aid principles can help you keep your cool and think clearly when disaster strikes. April is Pet First Aid Awareness Month, so we’re discussing pet first aid basics, including how to respond to common pet emergencies and when to seek veterinary care.

What is pet first aid?

First aid is the process of stabilizing an injured or ill pet until they can receive veterinary attention. Home first aid is never a substitute for veterinary care, but knowing how to administer first aid can help you prevent further injury, alleviate discomfort, and transport your furry friend in the safest possible way.

Pet first aid supplies

Creating a pet first aid kit is a key step in being prepared for emergencies, but regularly checking, refreshing, and restocking the kit is equally important, because items may expire and need replacing to ensure effectiveness when you use them.

To get started, you can purchase a commercial kit or make your own. Gather the following items, some of which can serve dual purposes, if necessary. Contact your veterinarian if you aren’t sure what to stock.

  • Wound care supplies, including sterile gauze, tape, tweezers, non-adhesive bandage rolls, scissors, saline or eye wash, sterile lubricant packets, clean hand towels, antiseptic wipes, and antibiotic ointment
  • 3% hydrogen peroxide and oral syringe to induce vomiting—only if directed by a veterinary professional
  • Instant cold pack
  • Muzzle
  • Digital thermometer
  • Veterinarian, emergency hospital, and poison control contact information
  • Large blanket or emergency carry sling to transport an injured pet
  • Benadryl tablets or liquid for allergic reactions

How to respond to common pet emergencies

Each emergency is different, and you’ll need to assess the situation to determine the appropriate action. Always keep in mind that injured pets often bite because they are scared and in pain. Protect yourself with a muzzle, towel, or blanket placed as a temporary barrier. Here are some common pet injury scenarios and how to respond:

Bleeding

  • Apply direct pressure to the wound with clean, non-adherent gauze pads.
  • If bleeding is severe, wrap a towel over the gauze and secure it with tape or hold pressure while another person helps you transport your pet.
  • Elevate the injured area if that is reasonable and doesn’t stress your pet.

Choking

  • Check your pet's mouth for obstructions and remove the item, if you can reach it safely.
  • Don’t pull or attempt to dislodge partially swallowed objects, items wrapped around your pet’s tongue, or items firmly lodged in the mouth, as you could cause serious damage.
  • Seek immediate veterinary care if you can’t see why your pet is choking or you cannot safely remove the swallowed item.

Traumatic injuries in pets

  • For obvious fractures, stabilize the limb with a stiff object or wrap a thick towel around the area to minimize movement during transport.
  • Move your pet by sliding them onto a blanket or towel and keeping them as flat as possible.
  • Flush debris from wounds or eyes with sterile saline or eye wash, or use an antiseptic wipe before bandaging. Do not flush wounds with alcohol or peroxide.

Heatstroke

  • Move pets who show heatstroke signs to a cooler environment and check their temperature.
  • If your pet’s temperature is above 104 degrees, place them in a tub or sink and wet them down with cool (never cold) water.
  • If your pet’s temperature does not decrease in 10 minutes, seek immediate veterinary care, as heatstroke can rapidly cause brain damage and organ failure.

Allergic reactions

  • If you notice facial swelling or itchy raised bumps (i.e., hives) on your pet’s body, ask your veterinarian for a safe Benadryl dose you can give at home.
  • Skip the Benadryl and head straight to the emergency clinic if your pet is vomiting, weak, has diarrhea, or has collapsed, especially following a vaccine.
Where to learn more about pet first aid

Pet First Aid Awareness Month in April serves as a reminder to pet owners to educate themselves on first aid techniques and create, check, or re-stock their first aid kits. To learn in-depth first aid techniques and see them in action, you can take an online or in-person pet first aid course with the Red Cross, or download their pet emergency app to help you recall what to do during specific pet emergencies.

First aid is valuable knowledge for pet owners, but many people panic and forget what to do in an emergency. Being prepared and regularly refreshing your knowledge can help ensure that you quickly access the information and help your pet when your brain is in fight or flight mode. Remember that pet first aid is only a temporary measure to stabilize your pet before seeking veterinary care with a local emergency facility or an AAHA-accredited veterinary hospital.