What You Need to Know About Pet First Aid

April 26, 2022

Building a first aid kit, caring for a wounded pet, and knowing when to get help.

By Rachel Halpin, DVM, DACVECC

Criticalist at Care Center and NVA Compassion-First Specialty Advisory Board (SAB) Vice-Chair

As a board-certified veterinary criticalist at a bustling 24/7 emergency hospital, I’ve seen my fair share of lacerations, heat strokes, broken bones, and many other emergent cases.  As a pet owner, you probably already know that your pet can get themselves into all kinds of situations, which is why being prepared to take action when something does occur will be key to getting the best possible outcome.

First and foremost, have a first aid kit available.

First aid kits are one of the most essential items you can have. While there are many pre-made options available commercially, it’s also very easy to build one yourself – and you likely have many of the items at home already. Here’s what you need:

  • Gauze, or a feminine pad – to absorb bodily fluids and keep wounds clean
  • Adhesive tape – for bandages
  • Betadine or hydrogen peroxide – to clean wounds
  • Cohesive bandaging, such as Vetrap® – for bandaging
  • Benadryl – for allergic reactions
  • Sterile lubricant – for obtaining rectal temperatures and lubricating wounds
  • Corn syrup – rapid source of sugar for hypoglycemia
  • Digital thermometer
  • Scissors
  • Medical gloves
  • Styptic pencil or quik-stop powder
  • Muzzle and leash
  • A bag or container to keep all of the above together, ideally waterproof

Be sure to keep your pet’s medical records easily accessible and discuss with your veterinarian ahead of time what the best way is to contact them in an emergency. If they are not readily available, discuss alternative emergency care facilities to utilize as a backup, especially if traveling out of town.

My pet is injured! What do I do?

The first thing you need to do when your pet has sustained an injury is to take a deep breath. You will not be able to properly care for your pet if you are panicked.

Keep in mind, pain makes even the most well-behaved animals unpredictable and anxious. Therefore, your goal is to minimize stress as much as possible to prevent injury to yourself or further injury to your pet. Provided your pet is not vomiting, applying a loose muzzle (e.g., with roll gauze or a small towel) will help to protect you and others from a bite. Small dogs or cats should be wrapped in a towel.

Depending on the injury there are a few immediate actions steps you can take:


  • Apply direct pressure with gauze for at least 5 minutes. If gauze is unavailable, you can also use a feminine pad or a light towel/rag.
  • Be sure to not disrupt the clotting process by relieving pressure too soon or wiping the area. If the blood clot is dislodged, the bleeding will continue.
  • If the bleeding continues, put on a light bandage using gauze and vet wrap to apply continuous pressure on the wound until a veterinarian can address the wound.  

Bite Wounds:

  • If a bite wound is bleeding, apply direct pressure or a light bandage.
  • Do not attempt to clean or flush wounds at home – doing so can worsen contamination of the wounds

ALL bite wounds need to be treated by a veterinarian as they are at a high risk for an infection. Veterinary care should be sought as soon as possible.


Always contact a veterinarian, ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center, or the Pet Poison Hotline for immediate assistance with an intoxication.


  • Fractures are extremely painful, therefore, you should muzzle your pet
  • If a bone is protruding from a leg, cover it with sterile lubricant, gauze or a feminine pad
  • Do not try to splint the leg. Some fractures are not amenable to splinting and a bad splint can actually do more harm than good


  • Stay calm; luckily, seizures are rarely life-threatening
  • Clear the area around your pet to prevent further trauma
  • Keep other pets and children away until the seizure has resolved  
  • Keep your hands away from the mouth
  • Time the seizure; most last 2-3 minutes. If it lasts over 5 minutes, transport your pet to a veterinarian immediately

Regardless of the length of time, be sure to contact your veterinarian as soon as possible if this is the first time a seizure has occurred in your pet.


While a rare occurrence, it’s most common following aspiration of a foreign object (e.g. accidentally inhaled). It’s important to note that choking is different than coughing:


  • Loud, hacking
  • Often occurs during or after expiration
  • Can inspire normally


  • Difficulty breathing during inhalation
  • Often very quiet
  • Can cause high-pitched whistling noise
  • If your pet is choking, try to keep them calm and transport to a veterinarian as soon as possible
  • If your pet is unconscious, you can try to sweep your fingers into the back of their mouth to check for a foreign object, being careful not to confuse the object with their larynx
  • Due to the conformation of most dogs and cats, the Heimlich maneuver is rarely successful

Heat Stress:

Easily occurs in temperatures over 80˚F, especially with Brachycephalic (short-muzzled) and Northern breeds, like Huskies and Malamutes.  Signs of heat stress include heavy panting, exercise intolerance, weakness or wobbly gait, and collapse. If your pet is showing any signs of heat stress:

  • Move your pet to a cool, shaded area
  • Place them in front of a fan or a car’s A/C
  • Offer small amounts of cool water
  • Avoid excessively cold temperatures

Even if your pet’s temperature is normalized with first-aid measures, heat stress can cause irreversible organ damage to the brain, liver, kidneys, and coagulation system, so be sure to get your pet checked out by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Allergic Reactions:

  • Common signs of an allergic reaction are hives, reddening of the skin, and facial swelling
  • Most common allergens are bug bites, bee stings, and chemical contact
  • Benadryl can be helpful in mild allergic reactions, however you should always consult with a veterinarian to determine appropriate dosing
  • Follow up with your veterinarian

Immediately transport to a veterinarian if facial swelling is severe or causing difficulty breathing.

When to get help:

Reading through this you’ve likely noticed by now that with each incident the recommendation is to seek veterinary help. As mentioned earlier, while there are early intervention first-aid measures you can take, ultimately your pet’s best chance lies with a veterinarian.