Dr Rebel Skirving thinks human injuries are “gross” but when a newborn goat she had delivered wasn’t breathing, she dived into mouth-to-nose resuscitation without a second thought.
“It was in desperation,” she said, recounting the story to a full room at her first animal first aid course.
“I blew into its nostrils to inflate its lungs and massaged its chest to try and get the heart going. After a few minutes it did start to breathe on its own and had its own heartbeat.”
While responding to animal emergencies is the veterinarian’s job, it’s a skill regular pet owners in her regional town of Mount Gambier, in south-east South Australia, have been keen to learn.
Her course has attracted a mix of dog breeders, hobby farmers and young students curious about how to handle crises from snakebites to kangaroo fights.
“In a lot of emergency situations, the time taken to get that animal to a clinic can mean the difference between life and death,” Dr Skirving said.
“So if the owners are trained and confident in doing first aid procedures then they can make the difference.
“These preparations … don’t take the place of proper veterinary care but it’s information so that if an emergency does come up, there are things that you can do involving just common sense and using common items around the place.”
Household items ‘can be lifesavers’
Many of the first-response treatments recommended at the course involved household items likely to be in most bathroom or kitchen cabinets.
Your dog ate a fish hook or a shard of glass? Feeding it cotton wool — perhaps mixed with gravy to make a tastier meal — can “literally be a lifesaver”, according to Dr Skirving.
“It can do a really good job of wrapping up sharp things and protecting the gut,” she said.
“I had a call once from a client whose dog had eaten a knife blade … of course they were camping in the middle of nowhere.
“They still had it to take it to the vet but in the meantime the cotton wool had managed to actually encase it perfectly in the stomach and prevent anything like a puncture.”
Washing soda or sodium carbonate — not to be confused with washing powder — can be used to induce vomiting in dogs who have eaten poison, one of the most touch-and-go emergencies.
“You generally have about 10 minutes before it’s too late,” Dr Skirving said.
“Often if someone notices their dog has eaten bait, they’ll throw them in the car or on the ute and rush them in to the vet but … the drive is too long and they don’t make it.”
Courses build confidence
With human first aid courses commonplace, Dr Skirving said she wouldn’t be surprised to see the animal versions take off in popularity.
“There are not a lot of actual hands-on courses out there at the moment,” she said.
“Some vet clinics in the cities offer them but I’m not aware of many country practices that offer first aid courses.”
She said knowing the basics of procedures like animal CPR could dramatically boost people’s confidence when responding to emergencies.
“People surprise themselves with their own abilities,” she said.
“There are a lot of people out there who don’t like the gooey bits that come out of animals … they don’t like dog saliva but might just do mouth-to-nose resuscitation to save their best friend.”
Course participant Michelle Carey had previously found herself in that situation with a newborn Rottweiler puppy, that she managed to save.
“It’s very empowering,” she said.
“My animals are my passion, they’re my life, so to take one of them and help them breathe life was a natural response.”
She said she would feel more comfortable dealing with other emergencies after completing the course.
“I’d actually done a person’s first aid but this is the first animal first aid that I’ve been to,” she said.
“I got a lot of knowledge out of it.
“I’ve been around animals my whole life but … just having all the ideas I may have had confirmed, putting them into practice will be a lot easier.”