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When your pet collapses or is critically ill, it can be VERY scary and it may be difficult to think clearly. Performing CPR can save your pet’s life and it isn’t difficult to do.

In this post I’ll cover how to recognize when your pet needs CPR, the signs to look for and exactly how to do it. It’s not as hard as some people make out.

What is CPR?

CPR stands for Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation. The aim of CPR is to make sure that the tissues in the body continue to get a supply of oxygen and blood when the animal’s body isn’t able to by itself. You’re actually acting as the heart - pumping the blood, and the lungs - breathing for the animal. 

CPR allows us to “keep the body going” while we get the animal to the vet to detect and fix the underlying cause. If the body’s tissues don’t get oxygen, they can start to die off. Once this happens, we may not be able to get them back.

Is it difficult to do CPR on my pet?

No, it’s not difficult but it can be scary. The tough part is our pets can’t talk to us. So if you aren’t sure then go ahead and try CPR to be safe. The best approach is to familiarise yourself with the basic steps and even print them out and put them on the fridge or somewhere you could find them in an emergency. Practice on a teddy bear so that you’re familiar with the techniques before you need to use them in an emergency situation.

Will I hurt my pet by doing CPR?

You can break a rib when doing effective CPR, but this doesn’t happen often. A broken rib isn’t a big deal when you have a dog or cat that’s dying. Once the initial issue has been sorted out and your pet is stable, the rib will heal in time. Broken ribs are usually only life threatening if there are more than 3 broken and the chest wall is compromised.

How will I know if my pet needs CPR?

Below are a few steps to recognise when CPR is needed but generally, if your dog or cat doesn’t need CPR then they usually won’t allow you to do it. 

Imagine trying to blow air into your dog’s nose or do chest compressions on a dog that’s awake, they’ll get up and walk away or resist you. So, then you just take your pet straight to the vet. 

The MOST important thing to remember when doing CPR is that we’re doing our best to restore blood flow to the vital organs while we’re getting the animal to the vet. 

If a human family member suddenly collapsed, the first thing you’d do is call an ambulance and, in the meantime, start CPR. The same applies for your pets. 

In order for a successful resuscitation to occur, your vet needs to give fluids, drugs and start treating the cause of the emergency. Get the numbers for your vet and a 24 hour facility and stick them up on your fridge, around the house or save them to your phone’s speed dial. That way you’re prepared in case of an emergency.

If they have an ambulance service that’s great, but more often than not you’ll need to jump into the car and then call them to let them know you’re on your way. You can then start the CPR in your car.

When is it an emergency?

If an animal is not responsive, not breathing, has no heart beat/pulse or has fixed, large pupils that don’t respond to light then CPR must be started immediately.

  • Call out to your pet and if he doesn’t move or look towards you then he isn’t conscious
  • To check if your pet is breathing, see whether the ribcage is moving or place a mirror or small ball of cotton wool at the nose. The mirror should steam up and the cotton wool should move if he is breathing
  • Place your hand directly onto the chest to feel for a heartbeat or into the jugular groove to feel for a pulse
  • If you have a light or torch shine it into the eyes or lift your dog’s head and point it towards the sun or a light. The pupils should constrict or go smaller

How to perform CPR on your Pet

With any CPR - humans or animals - we start with the 4H’s 

Hazards

The first step in CPR is to evaluate the situation and look for potential hazards to YOUR health. With dogs and cats, it’s very important not to get bitten.

Hello

Look for signs of consciousness. If your pet is unconscious then start CPR immediately but if he’s still awake he may not be very pleased with you doing chest compressions on him.

Help

Call out for help! Get your family or neighbours together and GET TO THE VET. Call the vet first to ask for advice and let them know you’re on your way

History

  • Look for signs of what happened so you can give your vet as much information as possible. 
  • Could your pet have eaten something harmful like fertiliser or rat poison?
  • Was your pet possibly hit by a car? 
  • Look for vomit or blood on the floor
  • Anything else that strikes you as a possible cause
  • This is going to give your vet information which will determine the treatment and outcome for your pet

Once you’ve been through the 4H’s we start with the ABC’s

Airway

Start by checking the dog or cat’s airway. If your pet is conscious or in pain, this can be dangerous as he may bite. BUT if unconscious and not breathing, it’s fine to go ahead. 

Open the mouth wide, clear the airway of any food, saliva or foreign material, then use your fingers to feel for a ball or a bone which needs to be removed ASAP. 

Again, it’s important that while all of this is going on that you are ON YOUR WAY TO THE VET. Don’t delay leaving the house to do CPR. If your pet has something stuck or a collapsed airway then you aren’t going to be able to resuscitate your pet without veterinary help.

When your pet is at the vet, they’ll usually pass a tube into your pet’s throat at this point to make sure that the airway is open. 
If the airway is open, you can start mouth to snout ventilation… see below

Breathing

Check if your pet is breathing (above) and if not, start nose to snout breathing. 

Give 2 breaths initially as follows:

  • Hold your pet’s mouth closed with your hand
  • Extend the neck by pulling the whole head forward to straighten the airway 
  • Create a seal between your lips and the your pet’s nostrils
  • Breathe into the animal’s nose until you see the chest rise
  • Do this twice and then continue with compressions for another 30 seconds

If your pet is taking large, abnormal gasps, these can be agonal gasps. This is a natural reaction that the brain has to a lack of oxygen. If your pet is gasping then it’s still worth it to start CPR while on your way to the vet but it can also mean that the heart has already stopped. Don’t give up though, keep going. There may be faint heartbeat that you’re not picking up.

Circulation/Compressions

Once you’ve cleared the airways and given 2 breaths, start compressions. 

Make sure your dog or cat is lying on their side ona flat surface. Does it matter which side?

In small dogs and cats, pump the heart by applying compressions directly over the heart area to pump the blood. 

In large dogs, you need to push onto the chest in order to create a negative pressure and pump blood this way. 

Place your hands on top of one another, lock your elbows and use your whole body to do the compression. The chest needs to be pushed down by a third to a half. It’s important to allow the body to come back to normal after doing the compression. 

Make sure you have someone to help. You need to pump 100 times a minute. Now that’s quite fast, and if you are doing this properly, especially in a large dog, you should only be able to do 1-2 minutes of good compressions before needing to swop with someone.

Remember, your compression is acting as the heart’s pump and you need to get blood to move around the body to carry oxygen to the tissues and allow the blood to return to the heart. Even if you can’t feel a heartbeat or pulse, your pet could still have one. It can be difficult, especially without a stethoscope, to detect a faint heartbeat. 

Always start CPR and continue until you reach the vet. 
 

Dr Tanya Viljoen
After studying at Onderstepoort, Tanya worked in private practice for 4 years focused mainly on dogs and cats. She believes that the human- animal bond is a precious and essential part of life.
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