Pet owners are learning to be first responders for animals

Thursday, August 29, 2002

In this nation of dog spas and cat health insurance, some animal lovers are taking the next step: They're learning to put mouth to snout to perform CPR on their injured four-legged friends instead of waiting for the vet.

A pet first aid class, available through the Red Cross, was first offered by the Los Angeles chapter five years ago. It covers everything from how to take a cat's or dog's pulse (it's easiest near the inner thigh) to resuscitation to making muzzles, splinting broken limbs and treating heat burns.

Unlike human first aid and CPR courses, the class isn't available nationally. It is available at the Red Cross' Southeast Missouri chapter office, however, on a limited basis. Officials can't say how many of the more than 1,000 Red Cross chapters offer the course or how many people have taken it.

Those who do, though, get a wide range of lessons on how to help their sick or injured animals -- skills that could be crucial in an emergency, officials say.

"If something were to happen to them, could you respond?" said Lourdes del-Rio Valdes, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross chapter in Los Angeles.

Four animal owners recently showed up on a sunny Saturday morning as the course at the Red Cross office serving this Washington, D.C., suburb was called to order.

At the urging of instructor Lynne Bettinger, students practiced rescue breathing and CPR on cat and dog mannequins with movable limbs and chests that inflated when blown into.

In many instances, the treatment is the same as for humans with the same injuries.

For heat burns, apply cool water or compresses quickly and cover with a sterile, nonstick pad. Bruises take cold compresses several times daily. Sit a cloth-wrapped ice pack on the nose for nose bleeds.

For choking, use stomach thrusts -- the equivalent of the Heimlich maneuver -- to dislodge stuck objects, and direct pressure to cuts should stop any bleeding. Then cover with a clean cloth.

In most cases, the animal should be taken to the vet or animal hospital for additional treatment.

After nearly four hours in class, the students emerged with wallet-sized cards certifying them as capable of administering pet first aid, and copies of a reference book. The paperback, published in 1997 by the American Red Cross and the Humane Society, is included in the $35 course fee.

Dan Rutherford and his wife were among the students. They said that one snowy day in January, they were out walking their two dogs when another dog suddenly charged at them from across a busy, four-lane street.

It was nipped on the hind legs by a car, but seemed OK -- a relief for the Rutherfords, who said they didn't know how to help the animal if it were seriously hurt. They decided to prepare themselves in case they face such a situation with their own pets.

"I want to be able to save them when the time comes," said Amy Rutherford.

Nearly two-thirds, or about 65 million, of the 105.5 million U.S. households owns a pet, up from 56 percent in 1988, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

That translates into 73 million cats and 68 million dogs.

Some view the first aid course as another step in the pampering of pets that's taken place over the past two decades, with owners increasingly treating pets like two-legged members of the family.

Spending on pets is expected to top $29 billion this year, the pet product makers group says, with households shelling out about $460 per animal for everything from food to spas, daycare and taxis.

Jack Stephens, a veterinarian since 1972 and founder of a California company that sells animal health insurance, said he's witnessed a change in attitude toward pets over the last 20 years or so.

They weren't allowed inside the house when he was growing up.

"When I became a vet, pets were moving from the yard to the house," said Stephens, who owns 10 dogs, two cats and a bird. "Now they're in the beds."

They're also relaxing on our sofas, even going on some family vacations. And in some cases they don't go only to the vet. Animal dental and eye clinics are popping up nationwide, and the Iams pet company opened the nation's first MRI clinic for cats and dogs in nearby Vienna, Va.

"They truly have become a part of our family," said Funda Alp, spokeswoman for the pet products association. "They're another loved one in our household."

Features editor Laura Johnston contributed to this report.

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