Packing a Pet First Aid Kit

Pets add something special to travel and outdoor recreation. From time to time, however, they get sick away from home, leaving pet lovers to ask “what do I do now?” Fortunately, travel-related stomach upset and small scrapes and scratches are easily treated no matter where you are, but what happens if your pet becomes seriously ill when you’re away from home? Setting up a first-aid kit is a great way to organize the supplies you might need during a pet-related emergency, at home or away.

First aid kits make medical supplies portable and easy to grab before you go on a road trip with the entire family. The also help eliminate the panicked search through bathroom closets, cupboards, and medicine cabinets if a pet-related emergency happens at home. While there are a number of pre-made kits that you can purchase, customizing a kit to your pets’ specific needs is usually the most inexpensive way to prepare for an emergency. Most of these items are available at pharmacies; always ask your veterinarian before administering ANY over-the-counter medications to your pet.

The Essentials:

  • A durable water-resistant container large enough to hold all your supplies. If you have kids, or your job takes you to trade shows or conferences, chances are you have a handful of small backpacks or similar bags that would work great tucked away in a closet somewhere already. Plastic storage boxes of all shapes and sizes can also be used.
  • Phone numbers – start with ours: 480-857-7234. Now add the ASPCA’s National Animal Poison Control Center: 888-426-4435. Finally, use Google Maps or a similar service to find emergency or other veterinary facilities close to your destination and print it for future reference.
  • Soft muzzle – to prevent injury to caregivers, muzzles should be used whenever treatment is administered to a pet that might be in pain.
  • Leash – a lightweight “slip” style leash takes up minimal space and can be used to control your dog during transport (they’re also easy to stash in your glovebox to control stray pets you might encounter while driving around town). PPH will happily give you a leash or two the next time you stop by, just ask!
  • Wash cloth or similar clean towel or bandana – used to apply pressure to wounds quickly and great for clean-up.
  • Large towel or blanket – for drying, warming, and (when soaked in water) cooling. A sturdy beach towel also makes a great stretcher in a pinch—tie knots in the corners if you need something more substantial to hold onto.
  • Exam gloves – latex or plastic, you gotta have ’em for messy situations.
  • Thermometer – a quick-reading digital thermometer is best. Don’t forget a small tube of water-based lubricating jelly, since pets’ temperatures are taken rectally. What’s a normal temperature for pets? As a general rule of thumb, 99.5 to 101.5 F is normal for most pets.
  • Scissors – bandage scissors or rescue shears work well.
  • Hemostats or tweezers – for removing splinters, cactus spines, and ticks (just grab them firmly where the head meets the skin and pull gently—don’t worry about “leaving” the head, it’s mostly an old wives tale). If you can’t find medical hemostats, sporting goods stores sometimes sell these narrow “pliers” in the fishing section.
  • Large plastic comb – nothing is better for removing cholla balls from dogs and people alike. Simply slip the teeth of the comb between skin and cholla and flip the offending plant into the desert; use your hemostats to remove any spines that are left behind.
  • Nail clippers and styptic powder – torn and broken toenails are pretty common. Cornstarch can be used to stop bleeding nails in a pinch, but styptic powder is far superior in our experience.
  • Syringe(s) without needles – used to flush wounds and administer medications by mouth.
  • Antiseptic wash or wipes – find something that can be used without having to dilute it, because you might not have access to extra water. We prefer products containing chlorhexidine or betadine and avoid using hydrogen peroxide or alcohol on open wounds.
  • Antibacterial soap – great for general bathing and safe for use on minor wounds when mixed with water.
  • Bandage materials – you only need enough to protect the wound until a vet can provide care, but here are the basics:
    • Telfa pads or similar non-stick wound dressing – to cover open wounds.
    • Gauze sponges – great for cleaning and general bandaging.
    • Roll gauze – used over Telfa or sponges to hold everything in place securely. Can also be used to fashion a quick muzzle.
    • Cohesive bandage – Commonly called “vet wrap,” it’s a somewhat water-resistant elastic bandage that sticks to itself, not the patient’s hair. You’ve got to be careful when applying it, since the elastic can make it easy to apply too tightly. Your best bet is to unroll it first and then apply it under only gentle tension. If your pet’s toes swell, chances are the bandage is on too tight.
    • Medical tape – basic 1-inch adhesive tape for bandaging is easy to tear and won’t stick so firmly that it pulls out hair when removed gently.
  • Sterile eye wash – don’t accidentaly buy contact lens solution! Get the biggest bottle you can easily carry, because it can also be used to flush wounds if needed.
  • Drying ear cleanser – to clean ears and help dry ears after swimming. If the ears are wet but otherwise healthy, a 50:50 mixture of white vinegar and isopropyl alcohol works well. Ask your vet if you’d like a general-purpose cleanser that doesn’t contain alcohol.
  • A small bag or can of food or a high-energy snack – personally, I like small cans of stinky cat food because they’re easy to carry and most pets will eat them. Besides, if you’re cracking out emergency rations, you’re probably not too worried about stomach upset that can be caused by a change in diet.

Extras that can be used for a “custom fit:”

  • Medications – obviously, your kit should include a supply of any prescription medicatons that your pet is taking. An extra 3-5 days is a good rule of thumb in case of travel delays. Your vet might be willing to prescribe a small amount of appropriate pain medication to be used for minor injuries; whatever you do, don’t use human pain medications without asking a vet first. Some human pain relievers, like Tylenol, are poisonous and can be deadly. Ask your veterinarian if these over-the-counter medications are appropriate and, if so, what dose to use for your pet:
    • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl Allergy) – an antihistamine that can be used for itching, as a mild sedative, and for mild allergic reactions. OTC products must be chosen carefully because diphenhydramine is often combined with other drugs, some of which are toxic.
    • Loperamide HCl (Immodium AD) – an anti-diarrheal. Must be used with some caution, as it can cause constipation.
    • Famotidine (Pepcid AC) – an antacid that is useful for mild nausea and stomach upset.
    • Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) – for motion sickness.
  • Flea and tick prevention – these pesky parasites are less common in the valley than just about anywhere else. Ask your vet if you’re traveling to an area where they should be used.
  • Heartworm preventativesrecommended for all dogs in Arizona, but essential for dogs in many other parts of the country. Travel to areas in which heartworm incidence is high can put your dog in serious risk. If your dog isn’t taking a monthly preventative, call your vet to have Fido tested and start preventing this deadly disease (and controlling intestinal parasites as well) today.
  • Hot- and cold packs  – for warming cold pets, cooling hot pets, and icing sore joints. Cover the packs with a towel before applying them to your pet’s skin.
  • Epsom salts – for soaking minor wounds and scrapes and soothing sore feet after a long hike. Dissolve in warm water following package directions.
  • Hydrogen peroxide – can be used to induce vomiting under the direction of your veterinarian or the Animal Poison Control Center, but we’re not big fans of using it to flush wounds since it can damage healthy tissue.
  • Splints – probably overkill, but your vet can order molded plastic splints that can be used to immobilize limbs while you get to an emergency facility. In any event, pets with suspected fractures need to be examined by a vet ASAP.

Stuff you can probably leave home:

  • Band-Aids or similar – they just don’t work on furry patients.
  • Topical ointments – I’m not a big fan of greasy ointments like Neosporin and the like. Wounds that are small enough to just rub some antibiotic ointment on will usually heal uneventfully without it if they’re cleaned with warm water and mild soap and left alone.
  • Stitches, skin staplers, and other wound-closing devices – these are often used inappropriately, resulting in wounds that develop nasty abscesses, don’t heal properly, or have other complications. If a cut’s big enough for stitches, it’s big enough to see the vet!

Your kit is just the first step!

Even the best first aid kit can’t familiarize you with what to do in the event of an emergency. Now that you’ve got all your tools assembled, it’s time to learn how to use them. The Grand Canyon Chapter of the American Red Cross offers pet first aid classes in the Phoenix area. The Red Cross also publishes guides to Dog First Aid and Cat First Aid; both books include DVD’s that show demonstrations of the procedures described in the book.

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