CPR for Pets: As with Humans, the Rules Have Changed

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As a healthcare provider, I am mandated to renew my basic life support skills at regular intervals. This includes performing quality CPR under a variety of conditions. As a pet parent, it is incumbent upon me to become well-versed in the companion animal version.

The basic principals and sequence of steps in administering CPR to companion animals closely follows how you’d give CPR to humans. However, there are some vital differences. Remember, the goal is to give quality CPR quickly, accurately and efficiently to offer the best chance of survival with minimal after-effects. Following are general guidelines. There are slight variations based on the size, weight and shape of your pet.

  1. Assess Responsiveness. If your pet is motionless, shake them and call their name. If they do not respond . . .

  2. Check breathing and heartbeat. Lay your pet on his/her RIGHT side. Place your hand or face in front of your pet’s nose to feel for exhalation. Feel around the ribcage for chest rise (inhalation). To check for heartbeat, place your hand behind the left foreleg and palpate the ribs. The heart is located between the 3rd and 5th rib spaces. If you feel nothing, press your ear against the same area and listen. By listening to your pet’s normal heartbeat, you can attune yourself to any abnormalities that may arise in the future.

  3. Create an open (patent) airway. Ensure that your pet’s head and spine are aligned (straight). Pull the tongue out as far as possible to open the mouth space. Close the muzzle being careful not to clamp too hard on the tongue. Encircle the nose with your mouth and give two rescue breaths about two seconds apart. Palpate and/or watch for chest rise that coordinates with your breaths.

  4. If air is not getting through, there may be an obstruction. Perform the pet version of the Heimlich: hands on the stomach just under the diaphragm. Push up and in to expel the obstruction.

  5. Start chest compressions. Place the heel of your “weaker” hand on the chest above the heart area noted above. Overlap with your “dominant” hand. Lean over your pet for increased pressure and leverage. Deliver two compressions per second to a depth of .5 inch for a small pet, 1.0 inch for medium-sized pet and 1.5 inches for large pets. Allow the chest to completely “bounce back” (recoil) between compressions. Count OUT LOUD until you’ve delivered 30 compressions at the rate of two (2) per second (120 compressions per 60 seconds).

  6. Alternate chest compressions with rescue breaths. Two (2) rescue breaths for every 30 compressions. If possible, have one person perform chest compressions while the other administers rescue breaths to avoid fatigue and minimize time between compression cycles.

  7. Check for breathing and heartbeat every two (2) minutes. Continue cycles of compressions/rescue breaths until your pet starts breathing on his/her own. If there is still no response and you are alone, enlist a passerby to help you get emergency vet care. It is always a good idea to carry this information with you so that you can give specific instructions to your walking companion or a stranger.

The major shift in animal CPR over the past two years is exactly the same as for humans: an emphasis on chest compressions to promote increased blood profusion (oxygenation to vital organs). 

By periodically practicing the above steps on a stuffed version of your companion, you will be much better prepared to save the life of the one who loves you most unconditionally.

Contact the American Red Cross or Sunny Dog for information on signing up for pet CPR/first-aid classes in your area.