If you're a pet owner, it’s a good idea to take a pet first-aid course, which you can find through your local chapter of the American Red Cross. In the meantime, here are five things all pet owners should know in order to protect their animals from injury. (On just a quarter-acre of land, you can produce fresh, organic food for a family of four—year-round. Rodale's The Backyard Homestead shows you how; get your copy today!)
Keep the following items on hand, which should be easy since many are included in first-aid kits for people also (you can also buy an assembled kit, such as this 100-piece pet first aid kit for $38):
- Your vet’s phone number, the number for an animal poison-control center, and a copy of your pet’s medical records
- Scissors for clipping hair around wounds
- Tweezers for removing ticks and splinters
- Rolled gauze for bandaging, stabilizing joints, or making a muzzle (even gentle pets can bite when they’re scared or in pain)
- Clean towel or blanket—good for immobilizing small dogs and cats
- Adhesive first-aid tape to keep bandages in place
- Needle-nose pliers to remove foreign objects
- Rectal thermometer and a lubricating agent like mineral oil or petroleum jelly
- Antiseptic soap or Betadine solution
- Epsom salt (mix 1 teaspoon in 2 cups warm water for drawing out infection and bathing itchy paws and skin)
- Milk of Magnesia to absorb poison
- Baking soda to soothe skin irritations
- Cornstarch to stop bleeding of torn toenails
Dogs and cats don’t have very efficient ways of cooling themselves off, so they can get overheated very quickly, especially when the air temperature gets higher than their normal body temperature, which is between 99 and 102.5 degrees. (Worried about your pet being home all day in a warm house? Learn How To Keep Your House Cool Without AC.) Knowing the signs of heatstroke is critical: A pet’s tongue and gums will turn bright red and the saliva gets thick and sticky. Overheated animals may also start to vomit or wobble when they walk. Take his temperature rectally and if it’s higher than 106 degrees, get him to a vet immediately.
For mild heatstroke—temps between 104 and 106 degrees—get the animal indoors or to a shaded area out of direct sunlight and give him a bowl of water to cool off. Place a cool or cold wet towel around the animal’s neck and head but not over his eyes, nose, or mouth. Wring out, rewet, and rewrap every few minutes. You can also place an ice pack on top of the towel and put ice packs in the pet’s armpits and on the groin region where major blood vessels are located, to will help cool the rest of the body. You can also run cool water over the animal’s body—especially over the abdomen and between the hind legs—by either pouring it repeatedly or using a hose. Use your hands to massage his legs and sweep the water away as it absorbs the body heat.
Continue to take his temperature every 10 minutes and stop your cooling-off process once the temp gets down to 103 degrees, so he doesn’t get chilled.
Active dogs and curious cats find lots of ways to injure themselves. Cuts, particularly on legs or near large blood vessels, may need immediate medical attention. But when your animal gets a minor cut or scrape, you can handle it much the same way you would with a human. If you don’t have an actual muzzle, use a strip of gauze or towel, or an old tie to keep the animal from biting you while you're trying to dress the wound—it may seem cruel, but even gentle animals can bite out of fear or pain. Never muzzle a vomiting pet, though. Small dogs and cats can be wrapped in a towel to restrain them. Just be sure to leave the animal’s nose uncovered.
Press a clean, thick gauze pad over the wound. Don’t remove it until the blood starts clotting, which usually takes a minimum of three minutes. If bleeding is severe and doesn’t stop in five minutes, or if the cut is on the legs, get your pet to a vet immediately. Until then, apply a tourniquet using an elastic band or gauze between the wound and the body, and apply a bandage and pressure over the wound. Loosen the tourniquet for 20 seconds every 15 to 20 minutes. After the bleeding has stopped, trim the fur around the wound so you can see how deep the cut is. Then clean it with antiseptic soap—hydrogen peroxide is OK in a pinch, but it can damage a pet’s skin cells, so apply it accurately with a cotton ball or piece of gauze.
Be extra careful with choking animals. A choking pet may bite in panic, but they shouldn’t be muzzled. If the pet can still breathe and the object is visible, try to remove it with a pair of tweezers or pliers. But don’t spend a lot of time trying to remove the obstruction it if it’s not easy to reach—you may wind up pushing the object further down the animal’s throat. If you can’t remove the object, place one hand on either side of the animal’s rib cage and apply firm, quick pressure. This will push air out of her lungs sharply and hopefully push the obstruction out of the throat. Repeat this until it’s dislodged or until you get to the veterinarian’s office.
For cats or small dogs, you can administer a kind of mini-Heimlich. Hold the pet with his back against your stomach and place your fist into the hollow immediately beneath the animal’s rib cage. Using a strong, quick, thrusting action, push in and up toward your stomach to force the object out. If the pet stops breathing or collapses, get him to a vet immediately.
Whether it’s chocolate, bleach, daffodils (or one of the other 9 Houseplants That Could Kill Your Pet), or pesticides, pets can come into contact with a lot of things that can make them sick. The symptoms of poisonings vary depending on the substance, the amount ingested, and the individual pet—and in some cases, symptoms won’t show up for days. Here are a few key signs to watch out for: watery eyes, salivation, vomiting, labored breathing, and diarrhea. If you suspect your pet has been poisoned, local poison-control centers sometimes have pet-specific information, or consult the National Animal Poison Control Center.
While you're waiting to get to the vet or on the phone with poison control, you can induce vomiting, but only if the animal is fully conscious. Unconscious pets may inhale the vomit and suffocate. Feed your animal a small meal first. Then, using an eyedropper or turkey baster, squirt hydrogen peroxide down her throat—the recommended dose is one to two teaspoons per 10 pounds of body weight. However, caustic poisons like bleach can burn if you try to induce vomiting. If you suspect your pet has swallowed an acidic substance, feed her some bread soaked in mineral oil or vegetable oil, which will help slow absorption of the poison.
Related: 9 Common Pet Myths—Debunked