Having an understanding of useful tools to apply to support an acute crisis or emergency, until veterinary attention is obtained can make a huge difference to the outcome in a critically injured animal.

The most important question to answer is “Is the animal stable?”. This means that they are breathing regularly and normally and the colour of their mucous membranes (gums in mouth, some animals have black areas of pigment making it difficult to assess) are pink, they are conscious and responsive, there’s no major pain or discomfort and there is no significant blood loss.

An unstable animal who doesn’t meet one or more of these criteria is very likely to need immediate care. Ideally phone ahead to the vet with an outline of the situation so they’re prepared and no time is wasted.

When an animal is unconscious or gasping and battling to breathe and their mucous membrane colour is white, purple or blue, check that their airway is clear. Pull their tongue forward out of their mouth and look for any obstruction such as a foreign object or vomit and clear it away or hold their head downward to help fluid to drain out.

If they are not breathing after you have cleared their airway then attempt to perform “mouth to nose” resuscitation by closing their mouth and breathing into their nostrils with just enough air to make their chest rise. Allow the air to be released and repeat every 10 seconds in larger dogs, and every 5 seconds in cats and small dogs.

An animal which is battling to breathe, despite a clear airway, is best positioned lying on their chest to allow their lungs to expand as easily as possible.

The next priority is to feel or listen for a heartbeat on the left side of the animal’s chest, just behind their elbow.

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If there is no heartbeat then position the animal on its side and begin to massage the heart by compressing it with gentle but firm pressure on either side of the ribcage rhythmically between breaths. Check for a heartbeat every minute and stop compressions once the heart has resumed beating.

There are three very useful acupuncture points to which you can apply pressure with your finger nail or a blunt object to assist with resuscitation. These points are in the middle of the nasal plane in line with the bottom of the nostrils, the tip of the tail and the middle of the main pad of the hind feet.

If there is an obvious site of bleeding, apply pressure with a dressing or tourniquet. For an obvious fracture, use a splint such as a stick or block of wood bandaged on to stabilize the limb and in the case of a suspected back injury, transport the animal on a solid stretcher to prevent movement.

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Keep the animal warm and dose Emergency Essence or Rescue Remedy. A couple of drops may be applied to the inside of the lip every five minutes until the animal is stable. Generally, this works well and it is also often useful for the owner to have some too!

First aid; Understanding the Signs and Symptoms

An astute animal owner / carer knows when their animal is compromised and will often be able to associate an earlier experience with this insight eg. The dog who has eaten a rotting carcass who is off their food and vomiting or the cat who was heard in a cat fight the night before and is now limping.

Having a good working knowledge of what signs to look for to determine if your animal’s health is at risk is a very helpful investment. By observing your animal’s vital signs (breathing rate and depth, colour of mucous membranes, heart rate and temperature) regularly when they are healthy will help you to detect an abnormality.

Subtle signs of illness might include a quiet or depressed demeanor, poor appetite, heavy eyes and a dull coat. Other more obvious indications of “dis-ease” include rapid or difficult breathing, elevated or depressed pulse or heart rate, collapse, pale or bright red colour of the gums, difficulty walking or severe lameness, yelping out in pain, sudden bloating of the abdomen, severe vomiting and diarrhea as well as blood loss.

Some of these signs and symptoms are fleeting and pass quickly while others persist and might indicate a serious underlying problem. I find that making use of Flower Essences such as Rescue Remedy or Emergency Essence can help to take the edge off stressful situations but if the animal isn’t settling, seek veterinary advice immediately. There are a number of basic diagnostic tools to apply that will help you and your vet or vet nurse to assess how urgent veterinary input is in any given situation.

Heavy or rapid breathing are important indicators of pain or distress. Especially if the animal’s gums are blue or purple with abnormal breathing, they aren’t getting enough oxygen and they are likely to have damage to the respiratory system which might be in their lungs, circulation or red blood cells not transporting enough oxygen around.

If they’re having difficulty inhaling, the problem is probably in the upper airway but if it is difficulty exhaling then the lower airway is likely to be diseased or damaged. Pale gum colour might indicate shock or anaemia and red gums can indicate severe congestion or septicaemia.

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A very valuable tool to indicate good circulation and hydration status is called the capillary refill time (CRT). Identify a part of the gum which is pink, ideally above the canine teeth. Use a thumb to press it briefly with some light pressure. It will momentarily turn white and should turn pink again within two seconds. If this time is delayed beyond this then there is likely to be a serious problem.

An animal’s core temperature is another valuable tool used to assess their status. A low temperature indicates poor circulation while a slightly high temperature may be an indicator of pain and a severely elevated temperature is likely to indicate major infection.

The heart rate is influenced by most of these factors and will be elevated with high temperature, rapid breathing and pain or stress. A persistently elevated or depressed heart rate with none of the above influences requires further investigation.

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Dr. Liza is one of New Zealand’s leading authorities in holistic animal healthcare : drliza.co.nz.