The importance of pet first aid

The importance of pet first aid

Ryan Brook/TC Media Image by: Ryan Brook/TC Media Author: Canadian Living


The importance of pet first aid

Sitting around a table with a group of 20 strangers, I start to cry. We're watching a video of a dog – a young boxer – that has collapsed while playing in the park. The boxer's owner hysterically cries out her dog's name: "Sugar!" A quick-thinking man appears suddenly and begins awkwardly compressing the dog's chest. He stops to watch for movement. The dog twitches. The man holds Sugar's face in his hands and gives a long breath into the boxer's snout.

He pumps the dog's chest twice more, then notices Sugar has begun breathing shallowly. The dog squirms, then opens his eyes. With the help of his owner, Sugar shakily stands up. He quickly finds his bearings, and then it's like nothing ever happened. The stranger has saved Sugar's life.

It's not a stretch to imagine myself in the shoes of Sugar's owner. Playing in the park is something I do with my dog, Bink, all the time. I realized that no matter how much I spend on food for his sensitive tummy or how many hours we log going for walks and chasing sticks, in a life or death situation, I would be helpless. So I signed up for dog first aid.

Hands-on experience

What did I expect from the class? Basically, to sit and scribble notes for an hour or two as an instructor narrated dry lessons on technique. That's not what I got. When I arrived at the class in a church basement in Richmond Hill, Ont., I was greeted by Amanda Adamiak, a certified canine behaviour specialist and veterinary technician with 21 years of experience, and veterinarian Christine Culbert. With them was Strider, a six-year-old mixed-breed dog.

"Strider is the perfect dog [for teaching first aid] because he's so tolerant," says Culbert. "He understands body language and there's a mutual respect there. He plays a big role in all of the demonstrations."

No kidding. Throughout the course, Strider would teach us as much as his human colleagues. When asked, he would hop on a folding table at the front of the class while Adamiak and Culbert demonstrated critical first-aid techniques. The four-hour class flew by once we got up from our seats for some hands-on practice. Ever the professional, Strider would lie patiently as we took turns bandaging his make-believe wounds, checking his pulse, monitoring his circulatory system, looking in his ears for any sign of infection and stabilizing his pretend broken bones.

Page 1 of 3 -- Learn more potentially life saving tips on page 2
While you can't protect your pet from every potential hazard, knowing how to help when he desperately needs it is something that can put even the most anxious pet owner's mind at ease. We learned a great deal about injury prevention, but our instructors also devoted lots of time to preparing us for one of the most stressful situations any pet owner could find themselves in: reviving an unresponsive dog.

Canine CPR
Performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on a dog is just like performing it on a person, except the anatomy is different. Have you ever heard the old adage that you should time CPR chest compressions to the tune of the Bee Gees' hit "Stayin' Alive"? Ditto for a dog.

The first thing Culbert and Adamiak had us do was practise opening Strider's mouth to look for anything that may be obstructing his airway. In an actual crisis, if we saw something that looked easy to remove, we could try to take it out, being careful not to lodge the object even farther in the throat; if we weren't able to remove the object, it would be time to get to the closest veterinary hospital. "You can pump the heart all you want, but if you're not getting oxygen in, you're not doing your dog any good," says Culbert.

Next I checked Strider for a pulse. The strongest pulse on a dog can be found on the inside of the hind legs, where the legs meet the abdomen. In a real emergency, if the dog had a pulse we would be off to the emergency clinic. Here, we assumed we didn't find a pulse, so it was time to start CPR.

Page 2 of 3 -- Find out the basics of pet CPR on page 3

Adamiak and Culbert coached me as I flexed Strider's paw back toward his spine and located the optimal spot to begin compressions, where his elbow meets his ribs. "You want to press down on the rib cage so that you decrease it about one inch," says Adamiak. We were instructed to cup our hands and give five compressions.

For a small-breed dog, you would use two or three fingers of pressure; if you're working on a Great Dane, you would put your whole body into it. "It's very breed-specific," says Adamiak.

Finally, Adamiak stepped in and showed us how to give Strider mouth-to-snout resuscitation. "Cup the snout so that you keep the mouth closed and air doesn't escape through the cheeks," she says. "Then give him two breaths through the snout."

She suggested we go home and watch our own dogs' natural breathing, so that we minimize the risk of overinflating the lungs in an emergency situation. (This could cause them to burst, doing more damage.)

Adamiak talked us through the last bit. If the dog is breathing on his own again, we should go to a clinic for help. Should the dog still be unable to breathe, we would begin CPR again. If, after three minutes of CPR, the dog is still unresponsive, we would need to get to the clinic. "There are other things your vet can do to revive your dog," says Culbert.

Feeling a little overwhelmed with all the info I'd been given, I asked Adamiak for her best tip to set my mind at ease. "Don't panic. And don't give up," she says. "It doesn't have to be right, and it doesn't have to be perfect or look pretty, but doing something is better than doing nothing."

Thinking back to the video of Sugar – and the clumsy CPR that saved her life – I know that I'm now more equipped to help, should the situation ever arise. It's a little nerve-wracking to think about, but it's also pretty empowering.

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The importance of pet first aid