How to Check for Vital Signs, and Treating Wounds
This module will cover:
Checking your pet for vital signs
How to check for temperature, heartbeat and respiration rate
Signs, causes and home treatment for dehydration
How to treat external and internal wounds and stop bleeding
How to bandage wounds
Part of being a pet owner involves the responsibility for your pet’s physical and mental health.
Educated, informed owners are able to enhance their pet’s health and life, and protect them from disease and disability. As covered in Modules 1 and 2, it is sensible to have a wellstocked first aid kit, and to have knowledge of your pet’s anatomy and what to check for on an ongoing basis. Another important skill is to know the normal ranges for vital signs, which include temperature and heart rate.
No matter how careful we are, accidents happen, and being prepared is essential. Blood loss is particularly dangerous, and knowing the techniques to stop haemorrhaging so that the pet can be safely transported to a vet, could make the difference between life and death.
Remaining calm in a crisis is key.
Any owner will be aware that their pet picks up on their mood, especially if they are stressed. If you stay calm, they are more likely to also remain calm.
However, be aware that a pet in pain or shock, or one that is scared, may act aggressively, even if that is not their normal personality. For this reason, it may be worth having a muzzle handy, although this should never be used if the pet is experiencing breathing problems, or vomiting.
3.1 How to check your pet’s vital signs
As with humans, an unusually high or low body temperature is also a sign of illness in dogs. Any dog that appears to be ill, or just not themselves, should have their temperature checked.
While touching your pet’s ears will give you a rough indication of their temperature, it is far from accurate. Hot ears can suggest a fever, while very cold ears can indicate shock or hypothermia. The only way to be sure, however, is to check the internal body temperature, which is best done with a digital, or medically-safe mercury, thermometer. Owners may prefer a digital thermometer as they are stronger, less likely to break, and are easier to use correctly.
Using a rectal thermometer
If using a rectal thermometer, it is wise to have someone to help, preferably someone the dog knows and trusts. As the dog is likely to be nervous, one should hold the animal and talk to it calmly and reassuringly, while the other inserts the thermometer. It is best to coat the thermometer before insertion, to make the process easier.
A dog’s normal rectal temperature is between 101 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit, or 38.3 and 39.2 degrees Celsius. If using a mercury thermometer, ensure that you shake it first and that the mercury is below 94 degrees Fahrenheit. You may wish to wear gloves, and have a piece of paper towel to hand.
- Lubricate the thermometer with a water-based lubricant, petroleum jelly, or KY Jelly. Preferably warm the tip slightly.
- Have one person hold the dog, and/or make it lie on its side.
- Hold the tail clear of the rectum, then begin to insert the thermometer slowly, with a twisting movement.
- Dependent on the size of the dog, the thermometer should be inserted to a depth of one to three inches (2.5-7.5cm).
- If using a mercury thermometer, hold it in place for around two minutes. If it is a digital one, keep it in place until it beeps.
- Gently remove it, wipe it clean, and read the temperature. The thermometer should be almost clean. Any deposits, such as blood, diarrhoea or black, tarry stools are strong indicators that the animal is ill.
- Disinfect the thermometer with rubbing alcohol and water after use.
Taking the temperature by ear
An alternative method is to check the temperature via the ear, which is a less invasive method. Ear thermometers are generally more expensive than rectal ones and, unless used correctly, can be less accurate. They work by measuring the infrared heat waves emitted from the eardrum, which reflect the temperature of the blood in the brain. They often have a long handle, which is able to detect the temperature deeper inside the ear canal.
For an accurate reading, the thermometer needs to be placed horizontally along the ear canal. A normal ear temperature is between 100 and 103 degrees Fahrenheit, 37.75 to 39.5 degrees Celsius.
If, by using either method, the dog has a temperature below 99 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius), or over 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.5 degrees Celsius), then you should consult a vet immediately.
3.2 Checking for heart rate
There are three areas on a dog or cat where it is possible to check for the heartbeat or a pulse. Whichever you choose, the pulse will be in time with the heartbeat. The rate of the heart will depend upon the species, breed, and general health of the animal. Smaller breeds have faster heart rates than larger ones. Dogs that are in good physical shape will have a slower heartbeat than those that are not.
The normal heartbeat range for dogs is between 60 and 160 per minute. Puppies will have a faster heart rate. For cats, it is between 160 and 220.
Breathing can cause a variation in rate, as it may speed up during inhalation and slow down during exhalation. As heart rate can vary so much, it is a good idea for owners to check their pet’s heart rate periodically when they are in good health. This will enable you to establish a normal range, and also get your pet used to you doing it.
Checking the heart rate is a simple process:
- Place your hands on your pet’s chest, near to the elbow joint, and feel for the heartbeat. Count the number of heartbeats that you can feel in 15 seconds. Multiply by four for the beats per minute.
- Place two fingers on the inner side of the hind leg where it meets the body. This is where the femoral artery is located. Make sure you do not use your thumb, as thumbs contain a pulse. Locating this pulse is easy in dogs, but much trickier in cats.
- There is also a pulse on the back of the paw, but this may be harder to feel.
The readings for each area should be almost identical although, if your pet has become excited or agitated by you touching them, it will increase.
3.3 How to check the respiration rate
The respiration, or breathing, rate for dogs varies from 10 to 30 breaths per minute, while for cats it is 20 to 30.
The rate, as with the heart, varies dependent on size and health, and puppies or kittens will breathe faster. In medicine, one breath is one inhalation and one exhalation.
The best way to check your pet’s normal respiration rate is when they are relaxed, usually lying down or sitting still. As with humans, they will breathe faster after exercise or if excited.
You will need to be able to observe the movement of your pet’s ribs to be able to count their breaths. One breath is a rise and a fall. As with the heart rate, observe them for 15 seconds and multiply by four to get the rate per minute. If you are inexperienced, it may be worth counting the breaths for an entire minute to ensure that you are observing them correctly.
If your pet ever seems to be gasping for air, or their breathing is shallow or laboured, you should seek veterinary care immediately.
Other signs that your pet may require medical attention are:
- Any new or unusual noises while breathing.
- A change in the sound of the bark, which could indicate a disease such as laryngeal paralysis.
- A wheezing sound during respiration, which could signal an allergy or asthma.
- Sudden and frequent sneezing, which could be caused by an obstruction of the nasal passage by a foreign object.
- Lying down with its elbows or head further out than usual. This could be a sign that they are finding it difficult to take in oxygen.
- A drastic change in their normal breathing rate.
3.4 Signs, causes, and treatment of dehydration
Dehydration is a potentially fatal problem that needs immediate treatment if organ failure and death are to be avoided.
Dehydration occurs when the water lost from the body isn’t replaced, which also upsets the balance of electrolytes and minerals in the body. Usually the body can reabsorb fluid from blood and other cells, but in cases of severe dehydration, there is not enough fluid to get blood to the organs, which leads to their failure.
Dehydration has a number of causes, which include diarrhoea and vomiting, illness, overheating, hot weather, and exercise.
How to check for dehydration
Both dogs and cats have loose skin at the scruff of their necks. Hold this between your thumb and index finger, and gently pull it up. If it goes back to its original position immediately, your pet is well hydrated. If it does not, then your pet may be experiencing dehydration.
If dehydration is suspected, owners should look out for the following:
- Dry, sunken eyes
- Reduced skin elasticity, or sagging skin
- Thick saliva
- Excessive and abnormal panting
- Dry mouth, and nose
- Sunken gums
- Extreme lethargy and eventual collapse
Treating dehydration at home
Administer water, or an electrolyte hydrating solution in small quantities. If an animal has severe dehydration, it is unable to ingest a large quantity of fluid and may vomit it back up.
If your pet refuses to take any liquid, it should be taken to the vets immediately.
3.5 Treating wounds and bandaging pets
A wound may require bandaging. A sterile, well applied bandage can speed up your pet’s recovering and reduce the likelihood of infections and other complications. The skin protects your pet from bacteria and other microorganisms. When it is broken, there is a risk of infection.
There are two types of wound: open, such as a cut; and closed, such as a bruise.
Small wounds usually heal on their own without complication, but larger wounds may lead to excessive blood loss, and an increased risk of infection. It is important that owners are familiar with how to treat wounds and stem bleeding.
How to recognise the severity of bleeding:
- If blood is spurting or pouring from the wound, take them to the veterinary clinic immediately.
- If the blood is being expelled in short spurts, medical attention should also be sought immediately.
- If the blood is oozing or seeping, then it is less serious, and can be treated at home.
To treat the wound:
- Trim away the fur from around the wound, to an area of around half an inch (1cm) around. This will make it easier to see and treat the wound, allows more air to it, and reduces the risk of infection.
- Wash the wound to remove dirt and bacteria. Keep washing until it is clean and glistening. One way to do this is by squeezing warm water from a sponge.
- Dilute Betadine, or a pet-safe antiseptic can be gently applied using cotton wool or a clean cloth.
- Gently dry the wound by patting it.
- An antibacterial spray can be applied afterwards.
- Keep checking the wound for signs of infection, and seek veterinary attention.
3.6 How to stop bleeding
There are two types of bleeding: internal and external.
External bleeding occurs from wounds, and is visible.
Internal bleeding cannot be seen, and is usually the result of trauma, such as being hit by a car.
Internal bleeding requires veterinary attention.
Excessive blood loss can lead to shock and/or be fatal, so it is crucial to stop the bleeding as soon as possible. Even the loss of as little as two teaspoons of blood per pound of body weight can have serious consequences. While bleeding can be a stressful situation, owners should try to remain calm so that they can be most effective.
Excessive blood loss can be identified by two symptoms: high heartbeat rate and low blood pressure. Internal bleeding may be indicated if your pet’s gums or eyelids are pale; their legs, ears or tail feel cold; or the dog is more excited or subdued than normal.
The first step is to identify where the bleeding is coming from. While this may sound simple, if the wound is covered by fur, or it is between the toes, it may take a little investigation to locate it. Paws can bleed heavily even if the wound is relatively minor, as the capillaries are located close to the surface.
If the wound is deep, or more than 1 inch in depth, it should be checked by a vet. Equally, any cuts to the webbed tissue of the tissue of the feet should also be checked, as they may require stitches.
Observe the colour of the blood. Bright red blood is likely to be from an artery, which is redder in colour thanks to the higher oxygen content. It may also spurt or pulse in time with the heartbeat. Blood from veins is likely to be darker and ooze or seep from the wound. Both types of bleeding can be life-threatening, but arterial bleeding has a greater level of risk.
There are several ways to stop bleeding. These techniques are described here in order of priority and effectiveness.
Pressure is the most effective way to stop bleeding. It should be applied directly to the wound using something absorbent.
A cloth, towel, or gauze.
While something clean is always preferable, the most important thing is to stop the bleeding as quickly as possible.
Keep the pressure in place for 3-5 minutes before checking the wound. Resist the temptation to keep checking, as this will disturb the clotting process. If clots appear in the wound, do not touch them, as this can cause the wound to start bleeding again.
If blood soaks through the compress, do not remove it. Add another one on top, and continue to apply pressure.
Elevation to stop bleeding
Elevation is more effective in larger breeds and bigger animals. This is because they have longer limbs, and so there is a greater distance between the heart and the wound, and elevation uses gravity to reduce the blood pressure. The pet should be made to lie down so that the wound is above the heart.
Pressure should be applied in conjunction with the elevation for best effect.
Applying pressure to an artery
Sometimes, when bleeding is particularly severe, compression and elevation may not be effective in stopping it. In this case, applying your fingers or thumb to an artery can assist in stopping the bleeding. This method requires you to locate the important arterial pressure points, which are situated in areas of the body where you can feel a heartbeat or pulse.
For severe bleeding from the rear leg, apply pressure to the femoral artery, which is located on the inside of the thigh in the groin area.
If the injury is to the tail, then pressure should be applied to the caudal artery, located at the base of the tail.
If the injury is to the front leg, then firm pressure should be applied to the brachial artery on the inside of the leg.
In the most severe cases, a tourniquet can be applied.
This should be done only as a last resort, and with great caution as it cuts off blood supply and can cause severe damage to the tissue that can, in extreme cases, lead to amputation or death. It should be used only for bleeds from the tail or legs.
A simple tourniquet can be created by wrapping a 2 inch (or wider) piece of cloth around the wounded limb, which is then knotted in place. A tourniquet can be improvised from cloth, rope, belt, socks, or tights. Using a stick or pen to tie the knot around can help to secure it in place. Gauging the correct pressure can be difficult, as it needs to be tight enough to restrict blood flow, but not overly tight. Owners should loosen the pressure every 20 minutes for 5-10 seconds, to prevent damage to the extremities. Make sure that you use something to track the time.
For bleeds from veins, the tourniquet should be applied below the wound, as veins carry blood back to the heart; for arterial bleeds, it should be placed above the wound, as they carry blood away from the heart.
Once the bleeding is manageable or stopped, apply several layers of sterile bandaging and secure it. While the bandaging should provide some pressure, be careful not to wrap it too tightly, as this will result in swelling.
Bleeding from Scratches, Cuts and Nicks
Bleeding from scratches and small wounds is fairly common.
These are easily treated at home, using this method:
- Carefully remove debris, dirt and foreign objects from the wound, preferably by gently pouring water over it (known as irrigating the wound).
- Firmly but gently press a clean, sterile dressing onto the wound.
- Once bleeding stops, ensure that you clean the area thoroughly using pet-friendly antiseptic.
- Wash the area with warm water and a towel, along with antiseptic solution.
- Apply antibacterial ointment around the wound to prevent infection. If necessary apply a bandage, although minor wounds are best uncovered so that they are able to dry out.
3.7 A homemade muzzle
Be aware that however placid and good-natured your pet usually is, it may become aggressive when in pain. If necessary, a makeshift muzzle can be used to prevent biting.
This can be done as follows:
- Find a long piece of bandage, cloth, leash, or even a belt (preferably a soft material). Ideally, it should be long enough to wrap around the muzzle at least twice, and then be tied at the back of the head.
- Approach your pet gently and speak to them calmly and reassuringly. Try to make sure that smaller dogs are laid down in a comfortable position, while larger dogs should be sitting up so that you can stand with them between your legs.
- Make a large loop in the centre of the cloth or whatever else you are using. It should be around three times the size of the animal’s muzzle. Place the loop around the muzzle, pull it tight enough to prevent it from opening its mouth, but not so tight that it affects their breathing. Tie it in place with a single knot on the top of the nose.
- Take the ends of the fabric and loop them around the muzzle again, this time tying a knot underneath the jaw.
- Now wrap the ends of the gauze behind the back of the ears and tie it again.
- Have a pair of scissors handy. If the dog starts to vomit or develops breathing problems, the muzzle will need to be removed quickly.
In Module 1 you looked at what a pet first aid should contain and for bandaging, sterile bandages of different types, nonclinging, breathable medical tape, and antibiotic ointment are essential.
Bandages serve several important functions: they protect the wound from bacteria and dirt to reduce the chance of infection; they protect it from the animal licking and irritating the injury; and can also provide support for sprain and muscle strains.
As you should remember from above, a wound should first be cleaned using water. Pat it dry very gently with a sterile bandage. If you are unable to find one at the time, a clean paper towel or even a sanitary towel may be used.
Avoid using bathroom or kitchen towels, even if washed, as these can transmit bacteria to the wound.
Good bandaging has three layers, which are as follows.
After cleaning the wound, antibiotic ointment may be applied to the dressing that you are using for the contact layer. The ointment should be one that will not react with any medication that your pet may be taking. The bandage should be sterile, absorbent, and lint free, so that it does not stick to the wound. It should also be porous enough to allow for free drainage from the contact layer into the absorbent later.
If you do not have antibiotic ointment, you will need to change the bandage frequently to prevent bacteria developing. The contact layer may never be reused due to the potential for infection.
The absorbent layer both holds the contact layer in place, and absorbs any fluid that may escape from the wound. It is usually made of cotton. The width of the bandage used is important. If it is too narrow, it can be too tight and act as a tourniquet, leading to tissue damage or necrosis. If it is too wide, it is difficult to apply correctly, and will result in uncomfortable creases or wrinkles.
It is a good idea to apply several layers of absorbent bandage so that it is able to soak up all the fluids. It should be thick enough to last until you can reach the veterinary clinic. This layer should be wrapped from the end from the end of the tail, or from the paws up, towards the torso.
The outer layer is there to hold the other layers in place. Getting the pressure right is important to ensure that the under layers remain in situ, but that no further injury occurs from it being overtight.
A good guide to assess if the bandage is the correct tightness is if you can insert two fingers, but no more, under the bandage.
Self-clinging bandages are useful for this layer as it makes taping the wrapping easier. When taping, ensure that it sticks only to the dressing and not to the fur or skin and, again, ensure that the pressure is appropriate.
Additional tips for attending to wounds
Check the dressing frequently for signs of swelling, leaks, discolouration and unpleasant odours. All can be indicative that further treatment is required.
If there is heavy drainage from the wound, consider changing the bandage every two hours, ensuring that new, sterile bandages are used for the contact and absorbent layers. If the wound has stopped draining, change the dressing every 24 hours.
3.9 How to stop internal bleeding
Internal bleeding is far more dangerous than external bleeding, as we are unable to see that it is occurring.
Internal bleeding is a life-threatening situation that requires urgent medical attention. When internal bleeding occurs, it pools in the chest and stomach, and does not leave the body. It can lead to the organs being deprived of oxygen, resulting in organ failure. Internal bleeding is commonly caused by car accidents and falls, but may also be caused by infections or tumours.
The following signs indicate internal bleeding:
- If in the early stages of bleeding, bright red gums
- If later, pale, bluish gums
- Unusual coldness in legs, ears and tail
- Rapid heart rate
- Shallow breathing
- Coughing up blood
- Lethargy or weakness
- Glazed eyes
- Inability to find the pulse (in later stages)
When you examine your pet’s abdomen, it can feel tight and bloated, as the blood pools inside the stomach. To perform the examination, splay your fingers and apply gentle pressure.
Temporary first aid measures to stem internal bleeding
Although you should get your pet to the vet as a matter of urgency, laying the dog on its back and holding its legs in the air will help to alleviate the situation. This will encourage blood to flow to the brain and reduce the likelihood of the animal going into shock.
If you believe that the dog is going into shock:
- Find a strong board and lay the dog down on its right side.
- Wrap the dog in a blanket or towel, using it to secure the animal to the board.
- Place a cushion right under the hind legs.
- Tilt the board up vertically; high enough that the blood can flow to the brain.
- The board can also be used to transport the dog to the vets.