How to deal with the most common pet first aid emergencies - from choking to seizures

By Ethan Shone
Monday, 15th March 2021, 11:13 am
Updated Wednesday, 28th April 2021, 1:26 pm
How to deal with the most common pet first aid emergencies - from choking to seizures (Photo: Shutterstock)
How to deal with the most common pet first aid emergencies - from choking to seizures (Photo: Shutterstock)

Thanks to public health campaigns, informational adverts and videos and basic first aid training, most of us would have some idea of what to do if another person got something stuck in their throat, fell and hurt themselves, or had another medical incident.

But would you know what to do if your dog started choking, or you found your cat unconscious?

Clearly the best equipped person to help in any of these situations is a vet, but in the time before you can get them to a clinic - or, worst case, if that’s not an option - there are things you can do to give them the best chance of recovery.

According to Dr Pete Wedderburn, an expert veterinarian, some principles of first aid that apply to humans also apply to pets.

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He explains: “The very basics of first aid are universal across all species: ABC – Airway, Breathing, Circulation.

“Airway: is the airway blocked by anything? Check for vomit, or an object occluding the back of the throat.

“Breathing: is the animal’s chest moving up and down? Is air coming in and out of its mouth or nose? You can use a tuft of cotton wool held in front of the nostrils to check for air movement if you’re not sure

“Circulation: are the gums a healthy bright pink colour? If they are dark, purplish blue, or if they are very pale, there could be a very serious issue going on.

Beyond the basic principles of first aid, here are some of the most common medical emergencies to befall pets, and what you should do if they happen to your furry friend.

Choking or airway obstruction

If your dog is choking, you should use a version of the Heimlich manoeuvre designed for use on canines, which you can see an explanation and demonstration of in this video.

“Cases of complete obstruction are very rare. You may find the animal unconscious or see it collapse in front of you,” says Dr Wedderburn.

“Get someone to hold the animal’s head from behind the ears.

“Open the mouth, pull the tongue forwards, and inspect the back of the tongue and throat area. Reach down to the back of the throat with your finger if possible, taking care not to get bitten.

“If you cannot reach an object, press behind the angle of the jaw, or try a long-handled spoon. If still not making progress, suspend the animal by the hind legs.”


For a hemorrhage, Dr Wedderburn says, “the basic principle is: stop the bleeding.

“If it’s a single point - eg end of limb, tip of ear - apply pressure and apply a bandage.

“If it’s internal - eg a swollen abdomen, transport the animal to a vet as rapidly as possible.

“There may be other, more unusual cases, too. If a dog is vomiting up blood, could there be bleeding in the mouth, or might there be an injury elsewhere in the body that’s being licked? Or does the bleeding genuinely come from the stomach? Careful observation may be needed.”


“Remember that most seizures stop within five minutes,” advises the vet.

“Although they look awful, animals are rarely aware of what is happening to them. The risk of swallowing the tongue is minimal so do not put your hand near the animal’s mouth: you’ll just get bitten. Do not try to restrain the animal. Clear an area around the prone body, so that the animal cannot bang into objects and hurt itself.

“If your pet vomits, do ensure that this is not causing a blockage of the mouth. If the seizure continues for more than five minutes, you need to carry the animal into the car (eg on a towel) and bring it to the vet clinic.”

Collapse or unconsciousness

Dr Wedderburn says there are many possible causes for a pet to collapse, including renal failure, uncontrolled diabetes, liver failure and brain disorders.

“The first thing to do is check ABC: Airway, Breathing, Circulation,” he advises.

“If the animal is not breathing, check if they are dead or alive. I am serious about this: it can be surprisingly difficult to know. A one-to-one tuition session on “determining death” from your vet is worthwhile, so that if you are ever faced with this situation, you feel more confident.”

Respiratory distress or injury to respiratory tract

“This is a fundamental issue: you have more time than with cardiac arrest, but not much more time,” the vet explains.

“Check for any obvious cause - eg hyperthermia, injuries to the chest wall. Do not remove penetrating foreign bodies like a stick or piece of metal, since these may be stabilising underlying vital structures.

“Again, try to keep the animal calm, and get it to the vet as soon as possible.”

Bloat or gastric torsion

“This is one of the biggest emergencies in small animal practice, usually affecting large breed dogs,” says Dr Wedderburn.

“The stomach either simply swells up with gas (dilatation) or twists, then fills up with gas (volvulus). Affected dogs develop a very swollen abdomen, all of a sudden. It’s as if a balloon has been inserted into the abdomen and pumped up.

“Often they retch, bringing up saliva, but not actually vomiting. There are severe effects on the circulation and metabolism: dogs become dull, collapse and may die. There’s a very high mortality rate. You need to get these animals to your vet as soon as possible, phoning before you leave so that the vet knows what to expect when you get there.”

Heatstroke or hyperthermia

“Everyone knows the classic cases: usually a hot summer day, a dog chained in yard with no shade or water, a dog in the boot of car, or just out for energetic walk at the end of a warm day,” says the vet.

“The history is not always as obvious as you might expect, so with any collapsed dog in warm weather, consider this as a possibility.

“If it’s suspected, take a rectal temperature. The priority is simple: cool the dog down. Put it into a cold water bath, or empty buckets of cold water over dog

“Use cold, wet towels to help. Do not over chill the dog: stop when things begin to settle down.

“If a dog does not rapidly return to normal, take it to the vet for intravenous fluids.”

Severe cold or hypothermia

Dr Wedderburn says: “This is less common but is a risk in cold weather in unheated facilities, especially in elderly or very young animals, or in animals that may be sick for another reason.

“Diagnose by placing a finger on the gums beneath the lip during your first examination of the animal: if this area is cold and clammy, hypothermia is likely.

“Warm up the animal but be careful not to scald with direct application of hot water bottles or similar.”

Wound cleaning

According to the vet, the basic principles of wound cleaning are important:

1. Muzzle dog or restrain cat even if they appear calm and friendly2. Remove debris or foreign material3. Clip hair around wound4. Clean wound with mildly salty water5. Apply dressing if possible

Burns and scalds

For burns, “cool the damaged areas as rapidly as possible,” according to Dr Wedderburn.

“Cool running water - for five minutes or more - will help, but take care not to chill the animal. Afterwards, use an ice pack or frozen peas to keep the area cool. Apply dressing to the affected area, and get the animal to your vet.”