Dog CPR is the life-saving technique you need to learn right now

Jan 8, 2015 at 3:00 p.m. ET
Image: Glowimages/Getty Images

You arrive home expecting your pup to greet you happily, but instead you find it lying motionless on the floor. You have no idea what happened or how long it's been there. What do you do?

In situations like this, knowing how to do CPR on dogs may be the difference between life and death for your four-legged companion.

1. Check for foreign objects

Just because your dog is unconscious doesn't mean it needs CPR. If you discover your dog unconscious and don't know what happened, it's important to make sure you're providing the right kind of emergency care, especially since CPR can cause injuries like broken ribs and breaths can push foreign objects further down the windpipe.

Look down its throat, moving the tongue if necessary, to look for a foreign object. If you see something, pull the dog's tongue out. Hopefully, this will dislodge it, but if not, use your fingers or a tool like pliers to pull it out or do the Heimlich maneuver.

2. Check for heartbeat and breathing

If you don't discover a foreign object lodged in the throat or if you remove it and your dog still isn't breathing, you may need to initiate CPR. The heart can keep beating for several minutes even if your dog isn't breathing, so check for both breathing and a heartbeat.

First, lay your dog flat on its side with its paws facing you on a flat surface. If it's experienced a trauma (like being hit by a car), move your dog as little as possible, being very careful of its head and neck.

Watch to see if the chest is rising and falling (which indicates breathing), place your hand in front of the dog's mouth and nose to see if you feel breath and open the dog's mouth and check the gums. According to Eva Evans, a Nashville-area veterinarian who's currently opening her own hospital, City Pets Animal Care, the gums may become pale or white in color or even bright red or purple.

You should also check to see if your dog has a pulse. Place your hand on the dog's chest just behind the shoulder on the front of the rib cage. You can also check for a pulse by locating the femoral artery, which is in the joint where the back leg meets the body in the groin area.

3. Start artificial respiration

If your dog isn't breathing, start mouth to nose rescue breathing. Use your fingers to clear the airway, then, with your dog still on its side, lift the chin and straighten the throat. Use your other hand to hold the dog's mouth shut and put your mouth completely over the nose, blowing gently (for puppies, you'll need to put your mouth over both the mouth and nose, and don't expel all your breath). Watch to see if the chest is expanding. If not, no air is reaching the lungs, which means one of three things: that you aren't closing the mouth fully, that the throat isn't straight or that you're not blowing hard enough.

When the chest falls again, it's time to breathe again. Evans says the breaths should come every six seconds if you're just providing rescue breathing and after every 30th compression if you're also providing chest compressions. Evans cautions that "too many breaths can actually negatively impact the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood." As such, it's important to remain as calm as possible and count between breaths.

Continue monitoring the heartbeat while providing rescue breathing, and don't stop until your dog is breathing again on its own or until emergency help arrives to take over.

4. Begin chest compressions

If your dog's heart isn't beating, it's important to start chest compressions immediately.

The technique is different for small dogs than for medium or large dogs.

Small puppies — Put your thumb on top of the chest and grip your other fingers on the other side.

Small dogs/large puppies — A dog is considered small if it's under 30 pounds. Place your palm on your dog's rib cage over the heart (just behind the elbow on the chest).

Medium or large dogs — Put your palm on the side of the chest facing you over the widest part of the rib cage (this is not over the heart).

Regardless of your dog's size, Evans says you should compress about a third to halfway down the normal width of the chest (which isn't much on a small puppy). Don't overdo it because you can damage the lungs and heart (and break ribs) if you overcompress. Do 30 compressions at the rate of about 100 beats per minute, then two breaths, then repeat. While Evans wasn't familiar with any songs to get the right rhythm, several vets with online videos recommend "Stayin' Alive," which has a tempo of 112 beats per minute. Just don't forget to count to 30.

Continue until your dog breathes on its own and has a steady, stable heartbeat or until emergency help arrives.

After you perform CPR

Evans says even if your dog seems normal after successful CPR, get it straight to a vet. Your dog still needs to be inspected for broken ribs or other CPR-related injuries, and your vet may need to do tests to determine the underlying cause. "Dogs that experience true cardiac arrest and receive CPR at home have a less than 1 percent chance of survival without further medical intervention," Evans tells us. She also says that less than 3 percent of dogs that get full medical attention survive to go home. "CPR is a last resort," she notes, "[it is] typically unsuccessful because dogs, just like people, who need CPR are usually too ill or injured to be saved at this point, especially without emergency veterinary care."

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