The sickening sound of screeching tires can mean the unthinkable: a moving vehicle just hit your pet. In this emergency situation, quick action can save your beloved companion’s life. Assessing your pet’s condition and stabilizing his or her life-threatening injuries can buy valuable time before transport to an emergency veterinary hospital.
Initial Assessment of Your Pet’s Injuries
Evaluate your pet’s condition quickly to identify his or her obvious injuries and any life-threatening complications that require immediate attention. Approach your pet with caution—scared, painful pets often may bite owners trying to help them. Your initial assessment should include:
- Mentation evaluation — If your pet is unconscious or unresponsive, take her to the nearest veterinary hospital immediately. Finish your assessment on the way, if possible. If conscious, assess if the pupils of the eyes are the same size and if your pet is visual.
- Observation for obvious injuries and bleeding — Gently look over your pet’s entire body, checking for bleeding, skin abrasions, swelling, and painful areas. Once again, caution is warranted as even the most loving of pets may bite when in severe pain.
- Mucous membrane assessment — The gums are the easiest place to check a pet’s mucous membrane color. Normal mucous membranes should be pink and moist. Blood loss or shock can cause pale or white mucous membranes, and inadequate oxygen levels can cause cyanosis, or blue discoloration. Observation of pale, white, or blue mucous membrane color warrants immediate veterinary evaluation.
- Capillary refill time (CRT) — While checking mucous membrane color, assess your pet’s CRT to determine perfusion, or blood flow, to the body. Press a finger into the gum tissue and make it turn white as you push blood from the surface capillaries. Then, release pressure and count the number of seconds the white area takes to refill with blood and become pink again. A CRT of less than two seconds is normal; more than two seconds indicates inadequate perfusion or blood loss.
- Pulse rate — Feel your pet’s pulse by placing your fingers on the inside of her thigh near the groin, using slight pressure. If you cannot find a pulse, place your hand over your pet’s chest to feel his or her heartbeat directly and count the number of heartbeats or pulses over 60 seconds. A normal pulse rate is 60 to 160 beats per minute (bpm) in a dog, and 140 to 220 bpm in a cat.
- Respiratory rate — Count the number of breaths your pet takes in a minute by watching his or her chest rise and fall. Normal respiratory rate is 16 to 32 respirations per minute (rpm) for a dog, and 20 to 42 rpm for a cat. Any increase in respiratory rate or effort warrants evaluation by a veterinarian following trauma. Pulmonary contusion (bleeding into the lungs) is the most common injury following vehicular trauma to the chest. These injuries usually will worsen during the first 24 to 48 hours following being hit by a car and generally warrant hospitalization for oxygen therapy.
Stabilization of Your Pet’s Injuries
After an initial assessment, you should quickly stabilize obvious injuries to prevent further blood loss and damage. Common complications of car accidents include:
- Bleeding — If you see blood on your pet, you may need to part the fur to find the injured tissue. Apply pressure with gauze or a clean towel to the bleeding injury. Don’t wait until bleeding stops to take your pet to a hospital, and keep pressure on the wound during transport.
- Broken bones — If your pet’s leg is abnormally positioned or he or she will not bear weight on it, the leg may be broken. Make a temporary splint with an ace bandage, newspaper, and duct tape to stabilize the bone and prevent further injury. Wrap the ace bandage around the affected leg, extending beyond the joints above and below the suspected break or fracture. Then, fold several newspaper pages into a sturdy splint that is longer than the possibly broken bone. Attempt to maintain the limb in a normal or natural position and alignment, yet do not attempt to reduce or correct severely displaced broken bones. Place the splint on the outside or back surface of the leg, extending beyond the joints above and below the break, and secure it to the ace bandage with duct tape. The ace bandage and duct tape should be just tight enough to hold the splint in place and provide support; too-tight bandages restrict blood flow and can do more harm than good.
- Head trauma — Head injuries can cause life-threatening brain swelling and brain-stem injury. Signs that indicate head trauma include:
- Abrasions or swelling to the head or face
- Bleeding from the ears or nose
- Altered consciousness or dull mentation
- Different-sized pupils
Unfortunately, a pet with head trauma cannot be stabilized at home. If you believe your pet has a head injury, make a body board from a sheet of plywood or similar material, and carefully transport him or her to the hospital, ensuring that he or she does not move the head or neck.
Transporting Your Pet to a Hospital
Every pet who is hit by a car should be examined by a veterinarian immediately. Some injuries, such as internal bleeding, may not be immediately apparent and can become life-threatening if not addressed quickly. If your pet is conscious and stable, take her to your primary veterinarian for evaluation. If your pet is unconscious or has severe bleeding, broken bones, or head trauma, an emergency hospital, such as Colorado Animal Specialty & Emergency, may be better equipped to stabilize and treat your injured pet. If possible, call ahead to let the hospital know you are on your way, and relay the information from your own assessment. Ideally, another person should drive while you monitor your pet and keep him or her calm.
What to Expect at the Veterinary Hospital
When a pet is hit by a car, veterinary emergency personnel take the situation seriously. Following your initial call during transport, the emergency staff will “ready” the ER in preparation for stabilization and treatment. Treatments and diagnostics that may be employed include:
- Oxygen therapy
- Intravenous fluids
- Pain medications
- Control of bleeding with pressure bandages, or, in some cases, emergency surgery
- Ultrasound or X-rays to look for internal bleeding and internal/external injuries
- Blood transfusions, in cases of severe blood loss
- Antibiotics to prevent infections in wounds or abrasions
- Medications to decrease brain swelling
- Hospitalization for heart rate and rhythm monitoring, respiratory monitoring, blood pressure monitoring, and continual assessment of neurological status
Further treatments for broken bones (fractures) or wound repair may be delayed during the initial treatment phase due to other life-threatening injuries. Often, injured pets are hospitalized for 24 to 48 hours for continuous monitoring and further stabilization following vehicular trauma.
If your pet has been hit by a car, contact your family veterinarian or CASE for immediate care. At CASE, we are available 24/7 to assist with your pet’s emergency needs providing collaborative and compassionate specialty veterinary care.