Dogs and cats are hit by cars all the time. Owners, bystanders and all kinds of people arrive at the scene, but these situations are notorious for excessive delay in transporting the pet to the hospital. Often there is chaos and a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Sometimes, the people who have the most first aid training spend too much time trying to “assess” the pet, instead of swiftly preparing him for transport and getting him to the hospital. Sometimes, I see dogs arrive DOA (that means Dead On Arrival) that have had been hit less than 20 minutes drive away but spent 45-90 minutes (or more) lying at the scene of the accident with tons of people around not knowing what to do, or they spent 45 minutes driving around because nobody knew exactly where the emergency clinic was located. Some of these dogs died just minutes before getting to the hospital.
Chances are, at some point in your life, you will arrive at the scene where a dog or cat has been hit by a car. I want to walk you through the steps so that you can have a plan in the back of your mind and know what to do.
Now, if you get to a scene where a pet has been hit by a car and the little guy is alive, but really down for the count, here are my tips for getting him to the ER swiftly and safely:
Stay calm and take a deep breath
- The more frazzled you get, the longer everything takes. Everything will be ok. If not, well at least you did your best. The rest is out of your control.
- It is good to know when to ask for help. If you are alone, try to flag down help while you get to work.
Quickly assess the scene and make sure that you, the other rescuers and other drivers are safe
- The last thing anyone wants is a 6 car pileup or another person getting mowed down while you are trying to help the poor dog. Remember, not looking both ways is what got us into this situation in the first place.
- Put on your hazard lights and encourage others to do the same. Assign one person to alert on-coming traffic and tell people to slow down.
In emergency situations, clear communication is extremely important. In the ER we use the method illustrated below called “closed-loop-communication.”
“Closed loop communication” is a system of communication used in the military and in medical settings to ensure that commands are followed properly and to prevent mistakes. Basically:
- 1) Look the person you are talking to in the eye and say their name (or some other identifying feature: “guy with the beard,” “lady with the braid,””tattoo guy,” whatever.) In emergency situations, if you just randomly shout out orders (like: call 911), there is a good chance nobody will do it.
- 2) Give them a command and ask them a question at the end to confirm that they have heard you. (“I need you to do XYZ. Can you do that? or Do you copy?”
- 3) Insist that the other person repeat back to you the task that has been assigned, that they let you know they actively are doing it and that they alert you when the task has been completed. If it seems like it is taking too long, check back in and ask them what the status is.
- “Closed loop communication” is a system of communication used in the military and in medical settings to ensure that commands are followed properly and to prevent mistakes. Basically:
Know the location of your nearest veterinary clinic equipped for emergency treatment
- If you don’t know, you can delegate this task to one (or more) of the bystanders that have cell phones.
Give a clear command and make sure that the person confirms that they copy and are acting on it. Like this:
- -“Hey! Guy in the red shirt. What’s your name?”
- -“Ok, Stan, I need you to find the nearest vet clinic equipped for emergency. Can you do that?”
- -“Ya, Ok.”
- -“Thanks. And let me know when you have them on the line. Alright?
- -“Yeah, OK.”
- -“Great. Thank you!”
Know who is going to drive the pet to the hospital
- If you are not going to be the person driving, then find someone who can. Please do not wait for someone who is NOT already at the scene to be the driver. It takes way too long for another person to get in their car, find the scene and then drive to the hospital. It is much more efficient for someone who is already at the scene to be the driver. Remember, if people stopped to help, it is because they really do want to help. So use them. They are on your team!
Same conditions apply for communication:
- Give a clear command, and make sure that the person confirms that they copy and are acting on it. See example above.
Now it is time to get the little guy off the road.
- Bring the vehicle designated for transport as close as possible to the pet, so that you don’t have to carry him very far. This also insures that the driver is ready to roll as soon as the pet is loaded up.
A lot of these guys will have broken bones (it can be ribs, legs, or even spine), so it is usually best if you can keep everything in one piece by sliding him onto something resembling a backboard. Think of something relatively flat, thin and sturdy. We see all kinds of MacGyvered backboards coming to the vet ER- I am always impressed by peoples’ creativity in the heat of the moment. Things that I have seen work well (depending on the pet’s size of course): floor mats, ply wood, signs, door mats, sleds, cardboard, etc. you get the idea. Even a blanket, towel or other clothing can do.
- Now, if you can’t find anything that would work as a backboard, please don’t spend too long looking. It is much better to get him to the hospital quickly than to spend extra time looking for backboards.
Lay the back board on the ground along the pet’s back. Now you may need help to swiftly transfer the pet onto the backboard.
- Remember safety first- so if it looks like the pet may bite, you may need to have someone create a barrier using something like a backpack or jacket, so that everyone is protected from the dog’s mouth. In some cases, a temporary muzzle may need to be applied (this can usually be made by tying a scarf, belt, leash or rope around the dog’s muzzle). If possible, remove it when you are done so that the pet can breathe better.
I usually choose two anatomical landmarks for transferring patients onto backboards: the shoulder blades and the pelvis. With one hand you can use your forearm to gently brace the spine, while you either slide the palm of your other hand underneath the dog like a shovel (or grasp a handful of skin on the back- between the shoulder blades or over the pelvis). Then swiftly transfer onto the backboard. If there are two of you, you can do hips and shoulders at the same time. Otherwise you can do shoulders first then hips.
- If you are backboard-less, just use the same principles when lifting the pet into the vehicle: try to stabilize the spine and any obvious fractures as well as possible while swiftly lifting the pet into the vehicle. Of course, it is best if there is more than one of you.
- Then, communicating with your lifting team, transfer the patient into the vehicle. It is nice if there is room for someone to ride with the little guy (to make sure that he doesn’t fall off the car seat, etc.)
Now it’s time to hit the road, and get to the emergency clinic as soon as is safely possible
- “Safely” is the keyword. Make sure any passengers in the vehicle are wearing seatbelts.
- The driver needs to stay calm and focus on the road. So if the driver isn’t exactly sure where they are going, then ask the person that found the hospital (in step 2) to navigate for you.
- It is nice if someone can call the hospital while the pet is en route to give more details to the vet emergency team about the accident (dog’s weight, types of injuries, etc.), so that they can better prepare for his arrival.
What to do if the little guy is not fully down for the count and still able to get up and walk?
- Still get him to the vet asap so that he can be checked out. So many life-threatening internal injuries (such as collapsed lungs and internal bleeding) may not always be apparent at the scene, but can worsen with time. Follow all of the steps outlined above, but you can probably skip the backboard section.
What to do if the little guy looks dead (unresponsive and not breathing)?
- Well, that isn’t a very good sign, but hope isn’t completely lost. We do see the occasional miraculous resuscitation, especially in very young animals.
- If the pet is un-responsive and not breathing, you will need to follow all of the steps above, but will also need to begin CPR as soon as you can safely reach the animal.
- Prevention is always the best strategy. Like the old saying goes…”An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That was Benjamin Franklin.
- Most dogs and cats have the intellectual maturity of toddlers when it comes to traffic. I see them walking into the street all the time, without the slightest awareness of cars speeding by. If they see a squirrel, deer, or friend on the other side of the road, any ounce of traffic awareness they may have had is completely gone.
Needless to say, if you are near cars (this includes driveways and parking lots), keeping your pet on a leash or in a carrier is the safest.
- It is easy to get complacent about leashes when you are walking your dog near your home, but most dogs and cats are hit within several blocks of their home. Just an FYI on that.
I have also seen several dogs get hit by cars while on-leash, so here are some things to be aware of:
- Extendable leashes can provide a false sense of safety near roadways. Extendable leashes near traffic should be locked out so that the pet does not have enough lead to run into the street.
- If your dog is really strong and cannot be well-controlled while on-leash, then it kind of defeats the purpose of having a leash. He could easily drag you into the street. I have seen several dogs (usually chasing squirrels) drag their owners (and sometimes the other dog in tow) into the street and get hit. Sometimes the owner gets hit too. So if you cannot control your dog on-leash, work with a trainer, or consider a training tool such as a gentle-leader (these work really well!!)
- A surprising number of pets are run over by their owners in their own driveway! So if you live on a property where the pets can roam in the driveway beware – it happens all the time!
- We see it happen when the owners are arriving home and the dog is running alongside the car because they are excited to see everyone. We also see pets get run over when owners are backing out of the driveway. Beware those hot summer months when dogs can be looking for shade beneath vehicles. One hot spring day, we had 3 different dogs come in because they were backed over in the driveway!
- In driveways and parking lots, roll down the windows so you can hear behind you, slow WAY down and make sure you know where everyone is at all times. This should just be a rule you never break, because many toddlers and kids also get hit in driveways and parking lots.
Beware the jumpers:
You would not believe how many dogs jump out of moving vehicles and get then get hit by other cars. This is especially common in truck beds, but TONS of dogs also jump out of open car windows. Once, Gracie actually jumped out of a convertible that had the top down and got hit by a bus! Luckily she was OK, but she lost her top-down convertible privileges.
- Tips: keep the windows rolled up enough that your pet can’t jump out. Securing your pet with a harness, crate or pet seatbelt also protects them from being ejected from the vehicle if you are involved an accident, which is also pretty common.
A note on truck beds and tying dogs to vehicles:
- A surprising number of dogs that are tied up in truck beds actually manage to jump out anyway and can get strangled or dragged. If you are tying your dog up in the back of a truck (putting him in a crate secured to the bed is safer), make sure that the leash is VERY short so that he can’t jump out.
- Dogs can also get dragged behind vehicles that people forgot they were tied to. This usually happens when people are camping, then they pack up all of their stuff and leave, but forget that the dog was tied to the tailgate. It would be better to tie the dog to a tree or something that won’t move (just in case you forget about him).
- You would not believe how many dogs jump out of moving vehicles and get then get hit by other cars. This is especially common in truck beds, but TONS of dogs also jump out of open car windows. Once, Gracie actually jumped out of a convertible that had the top down and got hit by a bus! Luckily she was OK, but she lost her top-down convertible privileges.
A little bit of training goes a long way.
- You actually can teach your dog road safety to a certain degree. My dog had a tendency to bolt out the front door and veer off the sidewalk. With a handful of treats and a few days, I taught her to sit and wait at the front door and at every sidewalk curb (where sidewalk meets road). I also taught her the commands “stop,” “sit,” “wait” and “get out of the road.” She isn’t the smartest dog in the world, so your dog could probably learn this stuff too.
No one wants to have their beloved pet injured by a vehicle, however your actions following a hit could make the difference between life and death. Please stay calm, give specific directions to anyone assisting and ACT QUICKLY!
TREES PET FIRST AID COURSE! This course is FREE and open to the public. We designed it for pet owners, dog walkers and pet sitters. If you pass the quiz at the end you can get a First Aid Certificate. Take notes and leave your questions and comments below :) Make sure to share with your friends that need to watch this!
Here are the 3 best pieces of advice from the emergency vet that could save your pet's life:
- DON'T WAIT TOO LONG TO GET HELP! If you wait too long, it could be too late. This is especially true for concerns such as laboured breathing, pale gums and weakness. You know your pet best, so if you are worried or concerned, "when in doubt, check it out!"
- PREVENT THE PREVENTABLE. Learn as much as possible about dangers that face your pet, such as household poisons, seemingly harmless objects (such as toys, clothing, garbage and rocks), other animals, and vehicles. Pets are like toddlers and they need a responsible adult/babysitter to protect them from danger. Puppies and kittens need to start their vaccines at 8 WEEKS (and they need boosters too!) to protect them from deadly diseases.
- BE PREPARED FOR THE WORST CASE SCENARIO. Have a plan in place, know your nearest emergency clinic, have the ASPCA phone number on speed dial. Know basic first aid training and CPR. But MOST IMPORTANTLY, BE FINANCIALLY PREPARED. The cost of medical treatment in an emergency, and the owners' ability to pay for it, is probably the most important factor that determines whether a pet will receive the medical care it needs. The best way to protect yourself is to have good medical insurance for your pet. Do your research.
**REMEMBER**: WE ARE ALL ON THE SAME TEAM, with the best interest of the patient as everyone's first priority. Let your vet do what he/she does best, and don't try to grab the steering wheel and obstruct your vet from doing his/her job. We are all in the same car, we are all headed to the same place, but only one of us has the driver's license (meaning, only the vet has the medical training and background to "drive the car").
Please remember to spay/ neuter your pet, and to donate to your local animal shelter- they really need your help!
- ASPCA Animal Poison Control: Hotline: (888) 426-4435
- Preventive Health in Puppies
- Meet "Oliver"
- Medical Insurance Can Save Lives
- 3 Tips From The Emergency Vet That Could Save Your Pet's Life
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