First-Aid Basics for Dogs and Cats
A Rodale Press contribution

Accidents can't always be prevented (that's why they're called accidents), but by being prepared you can help keep small problems from turning into big ones.

"Having a first-aid kit at home can be of substantial assistance," says Michael Schaer, D.V.M., professor of medicine and associate chief of staff at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville.

You can buy first-aid kits at pet stores. Or you can stock your own. Here's what it should include.

Pet Injuries - First Aid

In your view, she may be man's best friend, and he may be the purr-fect pet. Unfortunately, the other critters in your neighborhood may not hold your four-legged companions in the same high regard. That's why, sometimes, dog literally tries to eat dog -- or at least attempts to take out a hearty chunk. And those nightly cat fights can occasionally take on the proportions of an Ali-Frazier duel.

Add to that the reality of accidents, abrasions and other mishaps and you've got the makings of some nasty wounds, abscesses and bleeding. So here's what you can do.

For Dogs and Cats

Take precautions. Most experts recommend muzzling a dog or cat before trying to treat injuries. "If you touch the area that gives them the most discomfort, they're going to bite you," warns Alan Lipowitz, D.V.M., professor of small animal surgery at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine in St. Paul.

If you don't have a muzzle handy, you can improvise one from a roll of gauze or a length of rope, Dr. Lipowitz says. Just wrap it firmly several times around the animal's muzzle, then pull the ends back and tie them behind her ears. But keep a pair of scissors handy, he adds. If your pet starts to vomit, you'll want to remove the muzzle promptly to prevent her from choking.

Try wrapping her up. If your pet is too small to wear a muzzle, you can wrap her head in a pillowcase, towel or blanket before beginning treatment, advises C. B. Chastain, D.V.M., associate dean for academic affairs and professor of veterinary medicine and surgery at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine in Columbia. To avoid making it difficult for her to breathe, however, don't wrap her too tightly or for too long.

First aid comes first. "Stopping the bleeding is number one," says William D. Fortney, D.V.M., assistant professor of small animal medicine in the Department of Clinical Sciences at the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Manhattan, Kansas. As soon as possible, apply firm pressure to the wound with your hand or a clean piece of gauze or cloth. Maintain the pressure until the bleeding stops, usually within a few minutes. If the bleeding doesn't stop, get your pet to a vet right away, he advises. (For more information, see Bleeding.)

Make the fur fly. Once bleeding is under control, the next step is to clean the wound thoroughly. Start by trimming away the fur surrounding the area. Scissors are fine, but vets usually recommend using electric clippers. "You need to keep that hair away from the wound, because if it mats down it keeps the infection in there," says Wayne Wingfield, D.V.M., chief of emergency critical care medicine at the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Fort Collins.

But first, paste on protection. To prevent freshly clipped hairs from falling into the wound, Dr. Lipowitz recommends coating it with a thin layer of water-soluble K-Y Jelly. The hairs will adhere to the jelly, which then can be easily washed away.

Do some deep cleaning. It's especially important to flush deep cuts or punctures with water to expel germ-covered hair or debris that might contaminate the wound. "Soap and water are the very best antiseptics to use," says Dr. Wingfield. You may also want to apply an antibacterial ointment.

Bubbles mean trouble. Although doing a thorough cleaning is critical, veterinarians generally don't recommend applying antiseptics like hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol because they can further irritate injured tissue.

Let 'em lick. When dogs or cats get injured, their tongues automatically go to work. Don't interfere with Nature's plan. Licking does no harm, and it may actually help the healing process because it mechanically cleans the wound of debris, says Dr. Wingfield.

Heads up. Although some licking may be good for a wound, dogs or cats that have gotten stitches will often try to lick or chew them loose. To prevent this, your vet may recommend fitting your pet with an Elizabethan collar, a conical plastic shell that fits around your pet's head and prevents her from licking her wounds.

"Sometimes collars are put on automatically when maybe they're not necessary," adds Dr. Wingfield. He generally counsels a wait-and-see approach. If your dog or cat isn't worrying about the wound excessively, she'll probably do fine without the collar.

Let the sunshine in. Although a firmly tied bandage can help slow bleeding soon after an injury occurs, in most cases it isn't necessary and can actually be harmful, says Dr. Wingfield. "We do know the more material you put on a wound, the slower the healing."

Watch out for abscesses. While most minor wounds will heal on their own, occasionally an abscess will form. An abscess is a pocket of pus beneath the skin that indicates an infection is gathering strength. "Because it does not drain, the infection is much more likely to spread internally," Dr. Fortney says.

Once your pet has an abscess, she'll probably need to have it drained. In addition, your vet may recommend that she take oral antibiotics. Don't try to treat an abscess yourself, says Dr. Fortney. If you do, he says, "you've probably lost valuable time."

When to See the Vet

While most wounds can be managed at home, deep cuts or scrapes are going to need an expert's care. This is particularly true when the wound is deep or bleeding heavily or seems to be unusually painful, says Wayne Wingfield, D.V.M., chief of emergency critical care medicine at the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Fort Collins.

"If the laceration is deep enough to involve tendons or muscle, you should seek some kind of professional care," he says. Deep cuts often require anesthesia and stitches. Even scrapes can be dangerous if there's been a lot of blood loss or if infection sets in.

In fact, infection is the main risk from most wounds, experts say. Danger signs include pus, redness, swelling or tenderness that doesn't go away. Infections are particularly common in bite wounds, especially those caused by cats, because a cat's mouth is teeming with bacteria, and his sharp, pointed canines can cause deep puncture wounds.

"If it's a severe bite wound or puncture wound, you probably ought to see somebody and get antibiotics," advises Alan Lipowitz, D.V.M., professor of small animal surgery at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine in St. Paul. 

[Source:  PAWSPECTIVES,a e-newsletter]