First Aid II: First Aid Techniques

My last post covered some really great online resources for pet first aid information as part of National Pet First Aid Awareness Month. I hope you have had a chance to peruse them and found the information contained therein useful. I know it’s not as thrilling and stimulating as reading the latest sequel to The Hunger Games, but if you tuck away some of that information amongst your neurons, you will be better prepared for handling the minor scrapes and bruises that always accompany pet ownership.

This installment will introduce a first aid technique that you can perform at home on your injured or ill pet. We never like to think that our loved ones will fall ill or get hurt, but it happens, and when it does it is better to be prepared than stand there wringing your hands (unless of course you are wringing your hand because they are wet –then it is perfectly acceptable).

The word of caution tossed out at the start of the last piece applies here, too – first aid can help minimize injury and even save lives, but it is no replacement for trained medical care for serious ailments. The end of almost every bit of pet first aid advice ever doled out should read “…and then go visit your vet”. The other caution I need to dispense is to protect yourself – dealing with a sick or injured pet is dangerous business, and I have seen lots of unsuspecting owners get bitten by their own pets. Use a muzzle if you feel your pet could bite you, and if in doubt head to the vet for some help.

Wounds are a common happening with our pets – they are like permanent toddlers, always running about and scraping themselves on little pointy outcroppings of the world.  From space, our planet looks nicely rounded and smooth, but it has quite a few sharp bits when you look closely.

If the wound is the size of a dime (or smaller) and not deeper than the skin (meaning, you can’t see the muscle layer below) then you can usually treat the wound at home. If your pet has other injuries, or has a deep wound, dispense with bandaging at home and head straight into the veterinarian – wounds like that need sedation or anesthesia and professional cleaning. It’s the difference between cleaning up one small pile of cat puke vs. cleaning every square inch of carpet in your home – leave the big jobs to the professionals.


Bandages protect wounds from the environment and from becoming dirty or infected. Bandages can also help keep a fresh wound from acquiring bacteria, losing blood or getting blood all over your carpet. A bandage should have a contact layer, an absorbent layer, and an outer layer – more about these below.

The single most important fact to remember when applying a bandage is to avoid placing it too tightly and cutting off circulation. I have a 3-legged dog at home and he’s super cute, but you don’t want to start down the path of three-legged pet ownership by applying a bandage too tight.

Cleaning the Wound

Before bandaging, clean the wound with water and dry it. Blood, dirt, and debris should be washed away using copious amounts of water. Tap water is fine, but if you have contact lens solution (saline) that is best. Once the wound is dry, you can place the bandage.

Materials Needed (All available at pharmacies like CVS, Walgreen’s, etc)

  • Antibiotic ointment
  • Telfa© pad
  • Cotton wrap
  • Gauze wrap
  • Elastic wrap like Coban© or Vetrap©

The Contact Layer

After cleaning the wound, the contact layer is the first layer applied. This layer should be sterile, absorbent and not stick to the wound.  Apply an antibiotic ointment (such as Neosporin©) to the pad, but this is not absolutely necessary. Hydrogen peroxide is too damaging to tissues, so skip it. It does kill bacteria, but it kills healing tissues, too. This is like trying to get rid of that annoying neighbor three doors down who always has huge bacchanalian parties with dozens of drunken revelers and they always end up vomiting in your zinnias and it’s really hard to get them to come back year after year (the zinnias, not the vomiters) with people throwing up all over them. Poor zinnias. It could be that zinnias are annuals and would not come back even if there was no vomit, but I am a veterinarian not a horticulturalist, so just step off and quit bugging me about it. Anyway, it’s a little like getting rid of that person (zinnia-killer!) by setting off a 30 kiloton nuclear bomb in your neighborhood – it will get rid of them, and also all of their zinnia-killing nauseous friends, but it will get rid of you and all of your non-vomiting friends, who are so nice and always help you plant new zinnias year after year, too. So, it’s just not worth it.

Sometimes my analogies get the better of me.

The Absorbent Layer

The second (absorbent) layer holds the contact layer snugly, but not tightly, over the wound. Cotton or Dacron rolls work well for this layer. This layer should be applied loosely. Thankfully, most absorbent materials will tear before becoming too tight, but double check to make sure they are loose.  If the wound is on a leg, wrap from the toes towards the body.

The Outer Layer

An elastic material like Vetrap or Coban can be used for the outer layer.  The outer layer keeps everything all tidy and in place, much like Mrs. Garret did on Facts of Life. Wrap from the toes towards the body and do not pull elastic bandages tightly, as this will interfere with circulation and could lead to inadvertent 3-legged pet ownership. It is useful to unwrap the material first and then rewind it to remove the tension from the wrap before placing.

Once you have applied the bandage, it should be changed at least daily. If there is blood striking through the outer layer, or the bandage becomes wet, soiled or slips down, it should be changed.  Once the wound has closed, or the discharge has stopped you can probably stop bandaging the area. Chances are that your pet will want to lick at the wound or chew on the bandage, so you may want to invest in an Elizabethan collar (so named because they were invented by Queen Elizabeth herself, to help in the treatment of a small wound on the paw of her Corgi, Zinnia). These prevent the pet from getting at the wound or bandage and can be purchased at most pet supply stores, veterinary offices and tea shoppes.

Good luck with the first aid and I hope you enjoyed the rest of Pet First Aid Awareness Month! This month we are celebrating International Don’t Wear Socks With Sandals Month.  Remember to see your vet for deep or large wounds, and don’t forget to go out and water your zinnias.


Photo Credits: from flickr by CaperteeTheDog and andrewr

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