How a Canine CPR and First Aid Class Has Prepared Me for Dog Emergencies

The hands-on class covered everything from severe vomiting to serious trauma, such as being hit by a car. I share what I learned.

Whitney C. Harris  |  Apr 14th 2015


In the first year of Finley’s life, she broke a leg, ate some potentially toxic grapes, escaped from our house, and contracted pneumonia. I never realized having a dog would require so many emergency trips to the vet. With such an active, curious pup on my hands, I knew that a canine CPR and first aid class was a priority. So I eagerly signed up for The Martial Arfs hands-on course offered by Dr. Eve Pugh DVM, CVA.

The two-hour class gave owners the opportunity to work directly with their pets as opposed to using stuffed dogs or dummies, and promised to cover most dog emergencies and health-related issues. Some of the most common injuries in dogs are being hit by a car, swallowing a foreign object, sustaining bite wounds, fractures (including broken toes), and severe diarrhea and vomiting.

“I frequently think, if only they could have done something at home, the outcome might have been better,” said Dr. Pugh, an emergency vet with 16 years of experience in shelter medicine, emergency work, and general practice. She’s brought back dogs from cardiac failure, worked 36-hour shifts, and seen it all.

With about eight other participants — from Rottweilers to bedroom slipper pups — and their owners in the class, we each received some one-on-one instruction with Dr. Pugh. She would demonstrate with her own dog, and we would try to reenact what we saw, then repeat it a few times for practice. It was a truly interactive class, not a lecture.

First, we took our dogs’ heart rate by feeling under the front left armpit. Dr. Pugh told us to expect an average of 100-130 beats per minute, possibly faster in smaller dogs. Once we’re made aware of our pet’s normal heart rate, we’ll have an easier time detecting problems in the future. I had a hard time feeling Finley’s beating heart in her protruding chest, so Dr. Pugh instructed me to put my hand under the back of her leg where it meets her body. I immediately felt a small pulsing blood vessel and discovered that Finley’s resting heart rate is fairly low because she’s an athletic dog.

Next, we checked our dogs’ mucous membranes. We looked at the color of the gums by lifting the lip. Normally, they should be pink, although some dogs have pigmented gums. Blue or purple indicates a breathing problem. Pale or white is a sign of a cardiovascular problem or internal bleeding. Yellow means the dog is jaundiced. We were instructed to press on the gum, and if it was dry or stayed white, then those are signs of possible dehydration. Finley’s gums were very light pink and didn’t bounce back immediately from white when I pressed on them. Dr. Pugh told me to make sure she was drinking enough water and to check again that evening.

Then we checked our dogs’ pupils to see if they would respond to light. This is usually done to test responsiveness if your dog is hit by a car or suffers a trauma. We used penlights to shine the beam directly into our dogs’ eyes. The black pupil should dilate or shrink when the light hits it. If the pupils stay large and don’t respond to the light, that may indicate a loss of consciousness.

I was relieved when Dr. Pugh started instruction on the Heimlich maneuver. Finley loves to chew on socks and discarded objects she finds around the house, so I was certain this would be the most useful part of the class. We were assured that if our dogs were coughing and making noise, then they were not choking. It’s the silence that indicates something could be wrong. First, do a finger sweep to try to grab whatever is blocking the airway. Then, standing above your dog, take a fist covered with your opposite hand and push in and up under the ribcage. Start soft but use a good amount of pressure. And don’t worry about breaking a rib. It’s more important to get the object out of your dog’s airway, she said. This maneuver can also be performed while holding a smaller dog.

Finley was a good sport up until this point. Then came the restraints for bleeding injuries and wound treatment. We were instructed to get our dogs to lie on their sides before bandaging their limbs. The idea is for them to hold very still so they don’t further injure themselves and so we humans can check their vital signs and assess the damage. Finley fiercely resists lying down on her side or her back unless it’s her choice. So Dr. Pugh showed me how to hold her close against my stomach, reach over her belly to grab the two legs closest to me, and slowly slide her down onto her side. Finley wriggled her way out of my grip the first few times, but with a lot of practice (and coaxing with treats), I eventually got her to do it.

Once she was down, I followed Dr. Pugh’s lead in bandaging her up. First, tape the length of the leg and leave some extra tape hanging off the end, place a gauze pad on the abrasion, then layer rolled cotton starting at the toes (to prevent circulation problems) and working your way up. Don’t wrap too tightly. Then layer rolled gauze to compress the cotton. Finally, pull the tape up and then wrap the whole limb with vet wrap (which comes in some surprisingly cool patterns like camouflage and leopard print). We also wrapped an ear, bending back the injured ear — which may be bleeding like crazy but isn’t life threatening — and bandaging it while letting the good one stick out as an anchor. Don’t leave your bandages on for an extended period of time. The more permanent wrap should always be done by a professional.

Next was the grand finale: cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR. This is to be done when your dog experiences respiratory or cardiac arrest. In other words, he stops breathing or his heart stops beating. CPR is successful in less than five percent of humans, canines, and felines, but it’s always worth trying when it means saving a life.

We were told to keep in mind ABC: airway, breathing, circulation. Make sure the airway is clear by opening the dog’s mouth and doing a finger sweep for any obstruction objects. Then feel the dog’s nose or mouth to confirm breathing and look for the chest to rise and fall. If the dog isn’t breathing, then place your mouth over his nose while holding his mouth closed and blow. Be sure the chest expands and is filling with air, and aim for 20 to 30 breaths per minute. Then check the heartrate or pulse. If you don’t feel anything for at least 15 seconds, then perform 10 chest compressions using the palm of your hand. Aim for 100 compressions per minute.

To resuscitate the dog, do 10 compressions and deliver two breaths on a repeat basis. This could take 10 to 20 minutes of work before your dog comes back. If you’re alone, focus all your energy on the dog and begin administering CPR immediately. If you’re with someone, initiate CPR and have the other person call the hospital to let them know you’re on the way.

I left the class feeling empowered that if Finley or any of her dog friends were ever in trouble I would know what to do and how to do it.

Other useful tips:

  • Blood in your dog’s diarrhea is nothing to panic about. It’s fairly common, but do make an appointment with your vet if bleeding persists.
  • Use hydrogen peroxide (1 teaspoon) to make your dog vomit. Give no more than three doses. And never make your dog throw up a sharp object or battery. Have your dog drink milk to neutralize some of the acid and seek treatment from a vet.
  • If your dog is having an allergic reaction, her face will swell and she’ll get hives. You can give your dog Benadryl or a generic version of diphenhydramine (1 mg per pound).
  • Don’t try to splint your dog’s limb if you suspect a fracture. Go straight to the vet.
  • Dogs frequently choke on toy balls that are too small, so be sure to buy the right size.
  • If a piece of rawhide is too small, slippery, and slimy, throw it out. Don’t let your dog continue to chew on it, because it’s a choking hazard.
  • Practice driving to the pet ER so you already know your way. You have about five to 10 minutes to get to the vet if a true emergency strikes. It’s usually best to try to help your dog yourself if he’s choking or needs CPR. That being said, Dr. Pugh advises not to do the CPR yourself if your dog has been hit by a car because other serious injuries could have occurred.

What to include in a first aid kit:

  • Blanket or towel: This is to maintain body temperature as close to normal during transportation. The blanket can also be used as a makeshift stretcher with large dogs.
  • Thermometer: A digital rectal thermometer is good. Normal is 101 to 103 degrees F.
  • Penlight: A small portable light source is used to check the pupils and assess responsiveness. It can also be used to look in the mouth and provide additional light whenever needed.
  • Sterile gauze pads, sterile drapes, roll cotton, 1- and 2-inch tape, non-adhesive bandages, cloth strips, vet wrap: These are used to cover and wrap wounds while providing compression for any bleeding during transport to the vet.
  • Latex gloves: These should be worn to protect you from blood and bodily fluids but also to minimize contamination of the wounds by your hands.
  • Betadine or triple antibiotic ointment: Antiseptic to be applied to wounds before bandaging.
  • Scissors and tweezers: Scissors are used to cut tape, bandage, and gauze. Tweezers can be used to remove ticks or splinters from paw pads.
  • Instant cold pack: Applied to swollen joints or wounds. Do not apply directly to skin; wrap in a cloth or towel. Can also be used to cool a dog down if overheated or in cases of nose bleeds.
  • Hydrogen peroxide: Used to initially clean a wound and can induce vomiting in dogs.
  • Poison control telephone number: ASPCA (888) 426-4435. Provide as much information about the ingested substance as possible (i.e. packaging, amount ingested, time of ingestion). Most poison hotlines require a small fee that can be charged by credit card over the phone.
  • Veterinary emergency number: Call as soon as possible so they can give you advice and directions. Also, alert them to your arrival so they can prepare if necessary.
  • Saline solution: Used to rinse the eyes.

Normal ranges:

  • Heart rate: Average is 100-130 beats per minute.
  • Respiratory rate: Average is 30-40 breaths per minute, not when panting due to exertion.
  • Temperature: Normal range is 100-103 degrees F.
  • Pulse: Should be the same as the heart rate (100-130) but you can also observe the strength of the pulse, whether it’s weak, thready, strong, or bounding.
  • Mucous membranes: Normal color of gums is pink and slightly moist.
  • Pupils: They should be medium-sized and respond to the shining of the penlight by shrinking. The pupils should be the same size in both eyes.

Do you have a pet first aid kit? Have you ever taken a pet CPR class? Tell us in the comments!

Read more on being prepared for emergencies with your dog:

About the author: Whitney C. Harris is a New York-based freelance writer for websites including StrollerTraffic, Birchbox, and WhattoExpect.com. A former book and magazine editor, she enjoys running (with Finley), watching movies (also with Finley), and cooking meatless meals (usually with Finley watching close by).