You may be the unchallenged pet parent of the year, but accidents can happen no matter how careful you are. Animals have minds of their own and act on impulses and instinct, which may leave them vulnerable to emergencies such as heatstroke, being struck by a vehicle, electrocution, food poisoning, cuts and grazes. In the event of these and similar emergencies, you would swiftly make your way to the vet, but is there anything you can do immediately? There is!

“First aid is emergency treatment administered to an injured or sick person/animal,” Beagles points out, “before professional medical care is available. The first thing that needs to be done, in any situation, is to assess the condition of the animal and the severity of the situation.”

NOTE: First Aid is NOT a substitute for veterinary care, and must never, ever delay it, but it can help your animal survive until professional medical attention is available. Only professionals registered with the South African Veterinary Council ( may diagnose or treat a condition in an animal. If you can’t get hold of a vet at all, consider the attention of a qualified veterinary nurse or SAVC-registered animal health technician until a vet is available.

Your quick action can help an animal in a dire condition. But first, there are a few rules …


First Aid rules


  1. Don’t panic. Keeping calm will help you address the situation swiftly and effectively. This is the time to be totally clear-minded. You need to gather and process information and then react quickly. Your pet needs you (and most importantly, professional medical attention) and this is the right time to remain in control of the situation until a veterinary professional is available.
  2. Remember, your pet might panic. They may be disoriented, and pain or trauma can cause a pet’s autonomous nervous system to kick in. They may injure you (without intending to) whilst in this fight-or-flight mode. Be careful approaching and handling an injured or distressed pet. Be gentle, and avoid making any sudden movements. If necessary, carefully muzzle your pet so that s/he can’t bite but make sure that breathing is not obstructed. If a cat seems “frightened and potentially aggressive,” advises Blue Cross Britain, “it is better to lift the cat in a thick towel” but take care not to get bitten! You may also try coaxing larger or uncooperative animals into a shed or garage which could make it easier for you to contain them in a pet transport container.
  3. Don’t give human medicine. It could poison your pet. If he needs to go under anaesthesia, don’t give any food or drink, either.
  4. Don’t speed in the car to the vet (but do call ahead to confirm if a vet will be on duty when you arrive at the premises). While there are measures you can take to stabilise your pet, it’s a vet’s job to do the serious stuff and the drive there can make the situation more serious. You want to arrive alive, without hurting anyone else, and you don’t want to add to any injuries your pet already has or make the conditions s/he’s suffering worse by screeching around corners and mounting curbs – rather leave this for your advanced driving classes.
  5. Take notes to tell the vet. Write down or record facts – what happened rather than what you think happened – as well as location, time (or date if you don’t have it down to the minute), and other potential details of the event, e.g. attacked by a very healthy-looking stray dog. Grab samples of any suspicious objects to show the vet e.g. possible choking hazards, medicines, anything that can be chewed or swallowed, potentially poisonous goods, e.g. household detergents, various pet-toxic human foods like we’ve listed here – and keep track of symptoms and their changes (recording the time, intervals and details of changes). Voice notes are great, as long as your phone’s battery is properly charged.


It may be an emergency if…
If your pet has these behaviours or symptoms, you’ve got a potential emergency:

  • Weak, lethargic, unresponsive
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chronic (repeated) vomiting, especially in very young or elderly pets
  • Diarrhoea in kittens (it is less serious in other ages and animals)
  • Severe pain/discomfort
  • Struggling to balance/disorientation
  • Inability to pass urine or stools
  • Fever
  • Low temperature, especially on the legs, ears, or tail
  • Dull, sunken eyes
  • Eyelids not centred (one open more than the other)
  • Different-sized pupils
  • Whites of the eyes are pink or bloodshot
  • Discharge from the eye
  • Dehydration
  • Unusual drooling from the mouth
  • Excessive grooming/constant licking of an area
  • Coughing up blood
  • Puncture wounds
  • Retching repeatedly with nothing coming out (sign of bloat, which can be fatal)
  • Your pet is anxious, restless, or pacing back and forth or ‘round and ‘round
  • Your pet refuses food (on average the guidance is 24 hours, but you might know something is up from just one missed meal)
  • No heartbeat

First Aid steps to take


Ekg, Electrocardiogram, Anatomy, Aorta, Biology, Blood

For External Bleeding

If you can, elevate the area that is bleeding so that it is higher than the heart. This reduces the blood flow to the affected area. Press a clean cloth or pad (even a clean sanitary pad will do) to absorb the blood. The wound should clot. Tie the pad to the pet and add extra pads if it becomes soaked. Warn the vet in advance if the bleeding is excessive or doesn’t stop.

If clotting does not occur, apply direct pressure to the area (or, if you know where it is, to a main artery). A tourniquet is only for severe, life-threatening situations, on a limb or tail, and is best applied by a medical professional.

For Dehydration

Try the skin turgor test. Pinch the skin between your finders, then let go. If the skin is slow to return to its resting state, mild dehydration might be present. If it stays standing by itself, it’s possible that severe dehydration is taking place. Severe dehydration is critical and requires immediate medical attention. Remember, too, that “the skin turgor test is not always accurate and several factors such as age, weight loss and condition of the skin can give misleading results.”[1]

For Diarrhoea and vomiting

Check for dehydration (above). If symptoms continue, make your way to a vet. If they slow or occur every 6 – 8 hours, offer water with pet-friendly electrolytes. Do not let your pet eat anything until you’re sure the vomiting has stopped. It might be contagious and it’s not sanitary – isolate the pet from other pets and clean the mess promptly.

For Poisoning

It’s especially important to take detailed notes and samples here. If you don’t see the poison, look for symptoms like nosebleeds, blood in the stool or seizures. Collect vomit in a plastic bag. “The threat is not only related to the potency of the poison, but also to the quantity consumed, the duration of exposure and to the presence of other active ingredients, such as adjuvants and solvents.”[2] IF there’s an emergency guide for humans on the poison, follow it for pets e.g. rinse the affected area with soap and water but do NOT get anything in their eyes or mouth. Eyes can be flushed with pure water, IF the instructions say so. Some poisons must NOT be dislodged or removed or addressed by anyone but a medical professional. Here’s more on what to do if you think your pet has been poisoned.

For Burns

Flush the area with cold water for five minutes or press ice to the area (for bad chemical burns). A warning from Blue Cross, “do not apply ointments or creams, although you can cover the wound with a saline-soaked gauze pad while awaiting treatment. Remember to keep the pet warm.”

For Seizures (fits)

Time the seizures and the gaps between them. Note if they are becoming more frequent, longer, shorter, or less frequent. A fit can last a few minutes. Keep the pet warm between fits. Do not restrain the pet during the seizures. Darken the room and avoid talking or touching – this can encourage the fit. Place soft pads where the pet is lying e.g. cushions around him on the floor (he could fall off the couch!) and remove anything that can be knocked over.

If your pet is not breathing (1 of 2)

Open the airway. Check for items that might be stuck in the throat. Pull the tongue gently out of the mouth until it is flat. Breath into the NOSE, not the mouth. The lungs should fill. Repeat after 5 seconds. This is called “rescue breathing”.

If your pet has no (discernible) heartbeat (2 of 2)

Breathing and heartbeat emergencies can be related. To assist a pet without a heartbeat, you first need to secure the airway and start “rescue breathing” (part 1 of 2, above). Do not perform “rescue breathing” and chest compressions simultaneously.

Chest compressions:

Lay the pet on its right side. Find the heart. It is in the lower half of the chest a little to the left side. Put one hand under the chest (for support) and the other over the heart area.

Compression for dogs: For medium-sized dogs, press on the heart area to a depth of 2,5 cm. For larger animals, press a little harder, for smaller animals, press a little less.

Compression for cats and other small animals: Use one hand to cradle the chest, fingers to support on the right side of the chest, thumb on the left side. Squeeze the heart between these.

Frequency: larger animals: 80 – 120 times a minute (i.e. twice a second). Smaller animals: 100 – 150 times a minute (i.e. thrice a second). A second is a ‘one-and’ count, said aloud.

Alternate 5 seconds of chest compressions with 1 rescue breath or do one and have another person do the other. Continue till you have a heartbeat and breathing, or the veterinary clinic takes over.

We hope you’re never in this situation but having read this, you’ll certainly know what to look out for. If you’re inspired to be prepared, here are some more resources to help you along. Got the gist but need the kit? Buy a pet first aid kit online. There’s also this first aid travel kit for pets on road trips or in the car (and how to drive safely with pets here).

Like watching videos? Skip sifting through YouTube tutorials with questionable sources and learn the basics in an affordable online course @ Udemy . Bookworms can try this book on first aid for dogs or a read on medical care for cats  (Western Cape deliveries only).


Once again, please remember that this article in no way seeks to replace the essential care of a qualified veterinary professional for animals. It is paramount that you seek the attention of a licensed veterinary facility immediately if any strange symptoms occur. We’ve carefully designed pet cover to make great medical care more affordable for your pocket but still with your pet’s best interests at heart.